Government and the Voluntary Sector, Governance, Leadership

Rights and wrongs of that RSPB tweet and apology

DSC's trustee, Andrew Purkis, pinpoints the lessons trustees can learn from the recent RSPB tweets.

The RSPB recently apologised for a tweet calling three Ministers liars, after their decision to scrap current restrictions on housebuilders protecting water quality. What are the rights and wrongs of the whole episode?

1. Was the RSPB right to criticise Ministers publicly if the charity believes their decisions are damaging to their cause (and breach Government commitments on which environmentalists were relying)?

Yes. That is completely legitimate and appropriate, as sanctioned by Charity Commission guidance CC9. Charities are of course free to campaign, and propose or oppose changes in law or administration, in support of their charitable objectives. And they don’t have to be polite, either: that’s a matter for the Trustees to judge in each case.

2. Was the RSPB right to call Ministers “liars”?

No – unless the charity was sure that the conscious intention of MInisters was to mislead when they gave their various assurances that were subsequently (in the view of RSPB and many others, including by implication the independent Office for Environmental Protection) broken. There are plenty of reasons why politicians water down, jettison, re-interpret or redefine commitments made – you need intimate familiarity with them to know for sure if they were deliberately lying from the start. If you don’t know for sure, don’t say it, or you are asking for trouble and the story ends up being quite different from what you intended. The area of expertise and authority for RSPB is not the subjective state of mind of individual Ministers but the damage to nature and the breaching of undertakings on which they and their supporters were relying.#

3. Was it right for the RSPB to put out an obviously highly controversial tweet without, apparently, clearing it with the CEO and Chair of the charity?

No. That is seriously bad practice, undermining the ability of the Trustees and CEO to do their job properly. The CEO said that the normal protocols weren’t followed. The Trustees will undoubtedly want to know why not and consider what to do about it.

4. Was it right for any RSPB Trustee reading that tweet and worried that it might damage the charity to raise the matter urgently with the Chair and CEO?

Yes, absolutely right. There is no need to search in that Trustee’s past for an explanation of why s/he would want to do that – it’s his/her duty.

5. Was it right for one of the Trustees, Ben Caldecott, to go public with his criticism as well as alerting the Chair and CEO?

No. Trustees are collectively responsible and for an individual Trustee to attack his own charity publicly without waiting for a collectively agreed response is terrible practice. It undermines the collegiate nature of the Board of Trustees. In this case, it has led to lots of people assuming Ben Caldecott is the only one who raised concerns, or that the Chair and other Trustees decided on an apology because of him, even that the whole episode shows the power of dark money and Policy Exchange (where Caldecott once worked) infiltrating the charity etc – all of this an own goal resulting from Caldecott’s breaking normal rules of Trustee behaviour.

6. So was the RSPB right to apologise for the tweet?

Yes, assuming the charity was unable or unwilling to try to justify accusing Ministers of deliberate lying from the start, and if they felt they could not robustly defend the tweet from criticism. It’s particularly unfortunate that the apology tended to undermine other environmental charities that had also accused Minister of lying, but if the RSPB couldn’t defend their own tweet they were right to apologise.

7. Were the terms of the apology appropriate?

No. It was unnecessary to constrain the charity by saying that in future their campaigning will always be “polite” and that they should attack the policy rather than the person. The RSPB has a proud history of not being polite to those responsible for the avian carnage of the millinery trade that led to its establishment, or boating parties of Hooray Henry’s who used to shoot seabirds for fun, or gamekeepers poisoning protected raptors. There is no prohibition in charity law, nor in the Charity Commission’s guidance CC9, against being impolite or against (vociferously) holding individuals responsible for actions or decisions that are damaging to the charitable cause.

8. Was it right for the Charity Commission to engage with the charity about this incident?

Yes. When a big-name charity gets into a mess and feels it has to apologise amidst acute public controversy, it is right for the Commission to assure itself that the charity is taking steps to ensure that the same mess is unlikely to recur – as I am sure this great charity is already doing.

If one has to choose one overall lesson from all this, it would be: good governance may seem boring, but oh! how it matters.

This article was originally published on Andrew Purkis’ blog page, you can find it here.