RSPB made ‘serious mistake’ over ‘liars’ post says Commission as engagement continues

07 Sep 2023 News

Infographic from RSPB's X post criticising government environment policy

The Charity Commission has said that RSPB made a “serious mistake” in publishing a social media post last week that called government ministers “liars”.

It said it was encouraged by the RSPB’s swift apology and was waiting for the charity to share what action it is taking “to ensure such mistakes do not occur in future”.

Meanwhile, RSPB has defended its decision not to delete the post for which it has apologised.

The charity told Civil Society it was important that the tweet remained so people could understand the context of its apology.

Meanwhile, charity sector lawyers shared their thoughts on potential legal issues around RSPB’s post.

Commission engagement continues

The Charity Commission commented further after announcing its engagement earlier this week.

“It is encouraging that the RSPB acknowledged the post was inappropriate and took swift corrective action to issue an apology,” a spokesperson for the regulator said.

“However, as this was a serious mistake, we continue to engage with the charity and are keen to be assured of the trustees’ work to investigate how the incident happened, and what action they are taking to ensure such mistakes do not occur in future.”
The charity told Civil Society that it had been in contact with the regulator since the incident “and will of course remain in close dialogue with them”.

Original post remains live

RSPB has not deleted its social media calling ministers “liars” despite apologising for it and calling the framing of it “incorrect and inappropriate”.

The original post has over 10.6 million views on X, formerly known as Twitter, while its apology has 1.3 million views on the platform.

When asked why the original post had not been deleted, the charity said it was important the tweet remained on the platform. 

“The original tweet was quickly shared and reported on by the media and we know that nothing is ever removed from social media if simply deleted,” a spokesperson said.

“We felt it important that the tweet remained so people could understand the context of our robust apology.”

Lawyers: Personal attacks problematic

Charity sector lawyers defended RSPB’s right to campaign but warned that the personal nature of its post could create legal problems.

Suhan Rajkumar, senior associate at Bates Wells, said: “It is difficult to see how RSPB’s commentary, clearly tied to a live and relevant policy decision, would breach the prohibition against party political activity. 

“In divisive issue areas, though – and particularly ahead of an election – there’s clearly a risk that policy-based commentary which focuses on individual politicians might be misinterpreted as having a party political aim, or as otherwise harmful to a charity’s brand or reputation.

“The Charity Commission often focuses heavily on these kinds of reputational risks, and is likely to reflect last week’s media furore in its new social media guidance expected to be published shortly.”

Pippa Garland, partner at Russell-Cooke, said the post was “driven by RSPB’s concerns about the weakening of environmental protections, which I would say falls within their charitable remit”. 

But she said its use of an embedded image that can be distributed without its wider context increases the risk that RSPB’s social media post could be misconstrued as party political campaigning.

“It is not clear if the original tweet was authorised,” she said.

“While the tweet may have been against RSPB’s own policy on campaigning, if a charity felt that this framing was the most effective way of furthering their purpose, it should be permitted to do so – subject to the usual legal restrictions, including the laws of defamation.

“The Commission’s own guidance does state that charities ‘can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context’.”

Tom Murdoch, partner at Stone King, also said that defamation could be a potential issue.

“You can say something harmful to a person’s reputation if it is factually correct. However, here it is arguable; I expect the three named ministers would hotly deny that this is factually correct,” he said.

“I am sure that the RSPB would not want to leave that to a court to decide – and in charity law terms, a charity would have to very carefully justify any activity which could lead to court proceedings (and associated expense and damages). Again, charity law trustee duties apply.”

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