Can this sadistic cruelty be blamed on reality TV... or does this allegation just undermine the RSPCA?

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The Independent Online

A bitterly divided ruling council, an alienated staff, redundancies and strike threats;forget hunting and animal testing, what is really exercising the RSPCA is Jackie Ballard.

This week, the former MP, who was last year's surprise choice to head the charity, courted more controversy by blaming reality television for a spate of animal cruelty. She said scenes from I'm a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here in which insects were eaten might desensitise some people to acts of sadism.

It was hardly the most reassuring way to mark 12 months as director general of the charity, whose patron is the Queen.

And since her appointment caused a split between the council members, her latest comments, made only weeks after a storm erupted over her restructuring plans, are likely to widen the gulf between her supporters and opponents.

Ms Ballard clearly has her work cut out to mend fences, keep the society intact and, more fundamentally, ensure the £80m of annual public donations do not dry up. Bill Jordan, a veterinary surgeon, member of the society for nearly 50 years and a vice-president and former council member, said: "The council was split down the middle when she was appointed and is still split. I don't think that is going to change at all."

Margaret House, a member for 30 years, who writes the RSPCA Watchdog newsletter said: "I think she is doing a very good job. I'm impressed by her grasp of things and if she does all that she plans to do, the RSPCA will be a better organisation."

Council members are told not to speak to the press, but one told The Independent. "If I backed her I'd be anxious to tell you about it, wouldn't I?''

For many, Ms Ballard, 50, was an unorthodox appointment to the £90,000-a-year post. She is a former social worker, local councillor and Liberal Democrat MP who lost her seat in the 2001 election.

Her opponents cited her lack of financial and management expertise. Her supporters praised her long-time anti-hunting stance and fresh approach. Some members of the council backed Steve Marshall, the former chief executive of Railtrack. After Ms Ballard's appointment they proposed a vote of no confidence in the selection process and the society's chairman, Richard Ryder.

When it was rejected, Chris Flood, the council member who led the move, resigned and attacked Ms Ballard in a Sunday newspaper, singling out her use of hair dye. He said she was "all soundbites and no substance".

Not long afterwards, leaked internal papers showed an organisation riven by factional fighting over its £16m new headquarters at Horsham, West Sussex, and on the receiving end of complaints, resignations and cancelled legacies.

But instead of lying low, earlier this year Ms Ballard embarked on a drastic reform programme, which she said was needed to balance the budget and save £8m over the next five years. A fall in its reserves had already led to the scrapping of some regional animal rescue centres.

The 10 regional control centres, which take calls from the public on animals in distress, are to be replaced by a single, outsourced national call centre, making more than 300 staff redundant.

Ms Ballard, shocked to find that some senior executives had inadequate job descriptions, streamlined her management team and set performance targets.

Her measures have not gone down well. "She's not a popular person and comes across as very arrogant," a source at head office said.

Morale slumped and last month the Amicus union balloted its members on a strike. Although the vote was narrowly against, the union backed an overtime ban and other measures to disrupt contracting out. Talks on generous redundancy packages have led to a truce.

Ms Ballard caused controversy with her claim that recent "shockingly violent" attacks on animals ­ including a weighed-down spaniel thrown into a river near Southampton and a cat set on fire in Bath ­ were due in part to the public watching television reality programmes in which animals have been killed or formed part of challenges in which participants were covered in maggots or ate insects.

She said in an interview on Today on BBC Radio 4: "I don't think I'm the only person with a gut feeling that this is wrong, although I'm sure people will try to trivialise the argument." Such programmes were sending out subliminal messages to some people that cruelty to animals was acceptable.

On the issue of the RSPCA's future, she said: "Clearly some people who are losing their jobs are not going to be happy. But I have been forced to make a lot of changes ... because of the situation I inherited and which I hope will make the society a more effective body."

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