The appointment of Jeremy Cooper as chief executive of the RSPCA looks like a promising move. For a start, it ends a two-year period when the charity was being led by its trustees, which is the opposite of good practice. And Cooper, who has a private sector background, appears from his interview with Third Sector to be calm, businesslike and more interested – to borrow Churchill’s words – in jaw-jaw than war-war. His temperament and approach seem very different from the less compromising Gavin Grant, who, among other things, called for farmers taking part in the badger cull to be named and shamed, and who left the charity suddenly for health reasons in 2012. Cooper also states unequivocally that the RSPCA, in his view, is about animal welfare rather than animal rights.
The sense of progress and relief at Cooper’s appointment has, however, been undermined somewhat by the fallout from an interview he gave to The Daily Telegraph, which has for years been foremost among numerous media critics of the RSPCA, mainly because of the charity’s successful prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt in 2012. The charity must have known that giving first access to its new chief executive to its most vociferous opponent was a high-risk strategy, and presumably the decision to do this was taken in the hope of showing that a new regime of openness, conciliation and dialogue was beginning. In the event, it misfired somewhat.
The Telegraph projected the interview, in which Cooper accepted and said sorry for past mistakes, as a "dramatic public apology", and front-paged it on a quiet Saturday when other media – as is now so often the case – were casting around for news other than endless sparring on Brexit. The story was picked up widely by outlets ranging from the BBC to The Mail on Sunday, mostly using the Telegraph’s chosen emphasis in the absence of interviews of their own. The charity was concerned that the resulting coverage could convey a misleading impression that it was issuing a grand public apology for everything, including its opposition to the controversial activities of fox hunting and badger culling, and says its concern was confirmed by social media reaction from supporters who were worried that the RSPCA was, in effect, running up the white flag.
Cooper and the council – the trustees – of the charity therefore decided to follow up with a statement on its website protesting at "sensationalist media headlines", saying "a harmless interview has been misinterpreted by some and abused by others", and asserting that "we have not changed and will not change our position on fox hunting and the badger cull". It also said the charity did not regret the prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt. The tone of the statement was less emollient and more forthright than, for example, Cooper’s interview with Third Sector.
As night follows day, the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance responded harshly on its website, referring to the social media response to the weekend coverage as an "extremist backlash" and describing the RSPCA statement as a retreat "to the worst ignorant, bigoted and blinkered language of recent years". (In fact, if you read both sides of this exchange, the most extreme expressions to be found are where the Countryside Alliance refers to animal rights activists "frothing at the mouth" and the charity heading for "complete calamity".)
It sometimes seems as if hounding the RSPCA has become an additional blood sport. Either way, the upshot of it all is that Cooper’s attempt at a fresh start has been marred by the same old arguments and accusations. His relative inexperience in dealing with seasoned media operators following a known agenda might have been a factor in the way events played out.
But his main task now is to draw up a strategic plan for the coming years while an independent review of the charity’s governance begins simultaneously. The charity has 25,000 members – some 10,000 fewer than 10 years ago – and less than a third of them tend to vote in elections for 15 of the 25-strong national council: the other 10 regional members are elected by committees of the 164 branches spread through those regions. The governance has been criticised by the union Unite and by one trustee who resigned recently, partly because of the relative narrowness of the pool of people it draws upon and the absence of restrictions on how long council members can serve. As the charity’s membership continues to decline, in common with many membership bodies, the risk increases under the present system that particular factions might come to dominate in the way that its critics fear. The whole structure could do with a close examination.
Cooper says there is a need for change and he would like to see a system in which the council could take advice on important questions from what he calls non-executives, who could perhaps be co-opted council members or an advisory committee. This seems a good route to follow. The RSPCA has been called the "fourth emergency service", taking a lead role in enforcing the law on animal welfare. It provides a public service with charitable funds and, in that sense, is comparable to the RNLI and the hospices. It saves the taxpayer money and relieves national and local government of the controversy that sometimes attaches to animal welfare work. The corollary of that is that its governance and policy-making should take account of a wider range of views, and be open to a wider range of influences, than under the present system.
Stephen Cook is contributing editor of Third Sector