NEWSMAKER: Outspoken on animal rights - Jackie Ballard, Director-general, RSPCA

Annie Kelly

Jackie Ballard describes her start as the new director-general of the RSPCA as "a bit of a baptism of fire". Her appointment last October caused a storm of protest from charity insiders and pro-hunters. It was followed by a wave of press coverage that reported chaos in the organisation and attacked Ballard's credentials for the job.

Even before she started, several high-profile media interviews appeared in which she alienated anglers by describing fishing as "cruel" and gave her personal opinion on everything from game hunting to zoos, forcing the charity to issue statements disassociating itself from the views of its new chief executive.

Almost six months on, Ballard, a former Liberal Democrat MP, is still reeling from her treatment by the press. "I was shocked by the levels of personal criticism about my appointment," she says. "Maybe I was terribly naive in thinking that nobody would be interested in who I was. The fact I had lost my seat fanned the flames because the press likes nothing more than the fall of a successful woman."

Ballard came to public attention for her anti-hunting stance when serving as MP for Taunton, Somerset. She was co-sponsor of the Private Members Bill to ban hunting with dogs which was passed by the Commons just before she lost her seat in 2001 and gave her a reputation as an animal rights campaigner.

She says she refuses to toe the line over things that she feels strongly about. But the adverse media coverage quickly forced her to recognise the complexities of taking the helm of one of the country's best-known charities.

"Being head of a charity does bring certain responsibilities that I hadn't quite thought through. The press took a very personal interest in me and I should have refused to go down that line because it's more than my personal reputation that is at stake. It's the reputation of one of the country's most trusted and loved names."

Another result of media attention was that she gained notoriety among staff whom she hadn't even met, and she seems genuinely apologetic about the pressure that was put on them to defend her name. "Although they're used to taking flack, I'm sorry they had to defend me before I'd even walked through the door," she says.

Six months on Ballard feels that she is finally getting her feet under the table. She believes that it is her capacity to implement change that won her the role.

"I think they chose me because they were convinced of my credentials," she says. "I was prepared to lose my seat over the hunting issue so no one needed to be convinced of my commitment to animal rights."

It is her history of political campaigning that has made her the object of aggressive criticism both by the press and organisations such as the Countryside Alliance, which have accused Ballard of pulling the RSPCA towards "animal militancy" and neglecting its animal welfare services. She maintains, however, that the RSPCA has always been focused on campaigning for legislation to protect animals against cruelty and that service provision and lobbying should go hand in hand.

This determination to challenge the status quo extends to the RSPCA itself.

In five years' time Ballard would like to see more women in senior management roles and more staff from black and minority ethnic communities. She is "concerned" that the charity does not accurately represent the diversity of its broad supporter base.

But she doesn't believe that this is unique to the RSPCA and feels that the senior management in the voluntary sector is still too dominated by white men. However, she is encouraged that the NSPCC, a charity she supports, is managed by a woman.

"I think the fact that the NSPCC is very effectively run by Mary Marsh shows the potential of women to be great leaders in the charity sector," she says. "Women are less territorial and can see the broader picture, and our recent partnership with the NSPCC shows what you can do when you recognise that you have common ground."

The two charities are currently working in partnership on the Link Project, which aims to highlight to the public the link between child and animal abuse. Ballard uses this as an example of the way that balanced cross-sector partnerships between sector leaders can have a real impact.

Looking ahead, Ballard recognises that she has a huge task on her hands.

She's sticking to the official line that the RSPCA will clear its deficit and be back on track by the end of the year.

"I missed out on my honeymoon period when I started, but feel like I'm coming into it," she says. "I'm more comfortable in my role and now that the pressure has been reduced I am starting to feel like I belong.

"Hopefully by this time next year people will stop talking about Jackie Ballard running the RSPCA and start talking about the RSPCA which happens to be run by Jackie Ballard. Then we can just all get on with the job."

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