An advertisement placed by the RSPCA opposing badger culling has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which has also called for the Charity Commission to take a similarly robust approach.
The press and poster advertisement featured a syringe and a bullet alongside the headline “VACCINATE OR EXTERMINATE? The UK government wants to shoot England’s badgers. We want to vaccinate them - and save their lives”.
That prompted complaints by the Farmers Union of Wales, Welsh politicians Simon Hart MP and Antoinette Sandbach AM and 116 members of the public.
Announcing its ruling this morning (Wednesday, December 11), the ASA said consumers were likely to interpret the claim, along with the text “the UK government wants to shoot England’s badgers”, to mean that all badgers would be eradicated in the cull areas, and that claim therefore breached advertising rules.
The RSPCA’s had argued that various e-petitions, consultations, press coverage and their own campaigning materials ensured consumers would be aware of the 70 per cent cull target in the pilot cull areas and would therefore be aware that not all badgers would be culled.
The ASA said it understood that a minimum number of badgers had to be culled to be effective against the spread of bTB and acknowledged the uncertainty around the number of badgers that would be culled.
But it said: “We considered that the wider, general population, who had not taken an active interest in the proposed cull, would not be aware of the proportion of the badger population that was expected to be culled as part of the government’s plans.
“We therefore considered that consumers were likely to interpret the claim, along with the text “The UK government wants to shoot England’s badgers”, to mean that all badgers would be eradicated in the cull areas. On that basis, we concluded the claim was likely to mislead.”
It added: “The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told the RSPCA not to use language in future advertising that implied the whole badger population in the cull areas would be culled.”
The watchdog did not uphold a complaint by FUW and 15 others challenging whether the suggestion that vaccination was a viable alternative to a cull was misleading and could be substantiated. Itr rules that the RSPCA had ‘not claimed that vaccination was preferable or more effective than culling’.
The advert caused a furore when it was published in the Metro newspaper, with Richard Benyon, a Defra Minister at the time, branding it a disgrace and farmers responding angrily on Twitter.
Commenting on the ASA ruling, a Defra spokesperson said: “The culls were carefully designed and monitored to make sure there is absolutely no risk of local extinction to the badger population. Nobody wants to cull badgers butscientific evidence shows that culling badgers in areas where disease is widespread helps reduce cases of TB in cattle.”
The FUW’s TB spokesman and vice-president, Brian Walters, said the RSPCA had a track record of making misleading and threatening claims regarding badger culling and had also been censured by the ASA in 2006 following a complaint by the FUW over its “Back off Badgers” campaign.
“In 2012, the RSPCA’s chief executive, Gavin Grant, described the charity as ‘the oldest law enforcement agency still in existence in this country’ and threatened to campaign to ‘stop consumers drinking milk’ if supermarkets were unable to differentiate between ‘badger friendly milk’ and milk from English badger cull areas,” said Mr Walters.
“Similar, more ominous threats were made during a 2012 BBC Panorama documentary on the English badger cull during which Mr Grant said that ‘The spotlight of attention will be turned on those marksmen and on those who give permission for this cull to take place. They will be named and we will decide as citizens of this country whether they will be shamed.’
“All these factors show a very worrying lurch towards extremism which has occurred over the past two decades, and has undermined some of the core work of what used to be a highly respected charity.”
Mr Walters is now calling for decisive action to be taken by the Charity Commission in relation to the RSPCA’s lobbying actions, which he described as “aggressive and threatening”.
He added: “It is high time robust action is taken to return this organisation to the straight and narrow of doing what an animal welfare charity should be doing.”
Following an recent investigation the Charity Commission also demanded assurances from the RSPCA over its future behaviour when it comes to campaigning on issues like the badger cull and live exports.
The full text of the ruling is available on the ASA’s website.