Philip Hensher: Who will hold the RSPCA to account?


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The RSPCA is one of Britain’s biggest charities. In 2009 it had an income of nearly £120m, of which over five-sixths came in donations. Its work is highly visible, and it gives the impression of having a moral authority which is beyond question. I wonder, how-ever, whether the general public really understands its nature and powers.

Recently, a woman from Coventry, Mary Bale, was recorded on camera behaving rather cruelly to a neighbour’s cat. Evidently under the impression that she was unobserved, she picked the cat up by the scruff of the neck and dropped it in a wheely bin. The cat wasn’t discovered for 15 hours or so, but has since recovered from its ordeal. The neighbours who filmed Miss Bale put the film on YouTube, where it quickly generated a quite extraordinary amount of outrage and hatred. As I write, Miss Bale’s job at a Scottish bank is under threat.

Enter the RSPCA. It was reported that Miss Bale has been “interviewed” by the animal charity, and that they are deciding whether or not to prosecute her. Reading this, you will probably assume that the RSPCA is acting in accordance with its powers. But, in fact, the RSPCA only has the power to bring a private prosecution against somebody who it believes has mistreated an animal. Any private individual could do exactly the same. It has no power to enter anyone’s property uninvited, nor to interview anyone. All it can do is to remove the animal, and to alert the police.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the RSPCA’s modes of behaviour are generally interpreted as those of a branch of the police. Unlike other charities, their workers wear police-like uniforms with insignia and badges. It has been reported that RSPCA workers issue a verbal warning very similar to that made by arresting police officers – “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence...”

No doubt Miss Bale’s behaviour, recorded on the internet, was rather cruel to the poor cat. If she committed a crime, there was some clear video evidence. All the neighbours had to do was to send the evidence to the police, who would decide whether or not there was a case of cruelty to an animal to answer. What on earth was the role of the RSPCA in all of this, and why was it getting involved to the extent of “interviewing” Miss Bale? It wasn’t as if the cat was going to be taken away from a neglectful or brutal owner.

In fact, the RSPCA has about as many powers to interview and enter private premises as any other charity. If the directors of what used to be the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Association took to putting on uniforms and demanding to interview us to discover if we had distressed a gentleman in the street, we would not care for it. If Miss Bale committed a crime against a cat, let the police prosecute her. I dare say they have more of a sense of perspective than this immensely wealthy pressure group, too.

Of course the BBC should be paying Dame Julie

Dame Julie Andrews is 75 in October. The BBC, having noticed the important birthday of this wonderful woman, decided to mark the occasion with a television tribute. There is no shortage of material from Dame Julie’s long and glorious career, going back to an appearance at the 1948 Royal Variety Performance and her celebrated creation of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. However, the BBC wanted Dame Julie to appear herself in their celebration. “Well,” said Dame Julie’s representatives, we are to presume, in so many words. “What would her fee be?”

The BBC shuffled its feet, and let it be known that “We all assumed, perhaps naively, that she would be honoured to take part for free.” It appears that, faced with the possibility that Dame Julie might expect to be paid for appearing on British television, the BBC decided that it could not spare any money from the vast sums it was committed to shovelling into the bank accounts of Mr Graham Norton and an army of management consultants.

I must admit to being on Dame Julie’s side in all of this. Why should she appear for nothing? Why should she accept that all the honour would be on her side? One of the great curses of modern life is the assumption that because some people in this world are happy to sing, or write, or talk, or perform for nothing, that should be the normal way of things. Even those, who, like Dame Julie, have been at the top of their profession for decades are expected to be honoured when the BBC asks them to work for nothing. I expect it would only be sandwiched between Hole in the Wall and Celebrity Masterchef, anyway.

Don’t look this show up on Wikipedia first

Nope. Never seen The Mousetrap. No real interest in it, though I do slightly wonder what that theatre is like inside, tucked away at the top of St Martin’s Lane. It’s been running for 58 years now – it became the longest-ever-running show ever in the West End as long ago as 1958. God knows who goes to see it. Perhaps the hundreds or even thousands of former members of the cast, dating back to Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim in 1952.

You’re apparently instructed, at curtain down, never to reveal the identity of the murderer to anyone. This instruction has been followed so poorly by the decades of audiences that, in fact, the identity of the murderer is the one thing everyone knows about The Mousetrap, whether or not you’ve ever seen the play. But knowing the murderer and putting it in print are, it seems, two different things. An anonymous contributor to Wikipedia has just created outrage by summarising the plot, down to the conclusion of the thriller. “The revelation of the ending breaches an oral contract between the actors and the audience,” one commentator said.

Well, perhaps. It must be said that a really good thriller survives more than one reading, and it is perfectly possible to enjoy a well-constructed one knowing the identity of the murderer. I can’t say whether Agatha Christie’s play is in that class; oddly enough, the first time I heard about its ending was really the first time I had a serious desire to go and see it.

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