Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

We’re told to “Play the Ball, not the Person”, but why?

DSC’s policy trustee Andrew Purkis examines the limits and risks of personally criticising politicians, with key implications for trustees to consider during the election year.

“Play the ball, not the person” is an old sporting metaphor for charities to consider when entering the arena of public policy debate. What its saying is, in broad terms, “by all means attack policies and decisions that damage your beneficiaries, but don’t attack the individual’s character and integrity”. But why not? Is that a valid distinction? Or an old-fashioned and empty slogan not fit for the social media age? 

What are the limits of personally criticising politicians? 

There was an interesting case study in some of these issues recently when major national nature charities including the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts were enraged by policy decisions that broke previous environmental commitments made by Ministers. The charities accused Ministers of having lied when they gave the original commitments. There was a big public row focused on the RSPB, whichsubsequently apologised for its offending tweet, whereas the Wildlife Trusts did not and their CEO Craig Bennett continues to highlight the accusation of lying in a pinned tweet. 

Let’s first deal with valid reasons for a charity criticising an individual Minister or Ministers, (or anyone else who has damaged the cause), as vociferously as the case may warrant. Its right to hold an individual to account for that person’s decisions. Its right to complain if they have broken a commitment. Its right to show how their decisions or actions will affect the cause. Its right to share publicly the anger and frustration of members and supporters of the charity. Its right to make the offender feel the heat on behalf of your beneficiaries. In my view, theres no need always to be polite or kind (whatever the Charity Commission Chair may say). In those senses, criticising the individual’s decision may be perfectly valid. 

But what are the risks involved in going a stage further and attacking the personal character and integrity of the Minister (or Ministers collectively) or other miscreant involved?In the case of calling the Minister a ‘liar’ in print (which applies to digital media too), the risk of exposing the charity to a libel suit might be one. But other risks might be more common. 

Risks of attacking someone’s personal integrity 

Firstly, the focus and the argument shift away from the cause to the character and intent of the miscreant. As the RSPB discovered, that takes the focus onto much more difficult terrain for the charity – because, after all, there are many reasons why Ministers (and other politicians) break commitments (e.g. changed circumstances, new priorities, Treasury veto, etc) without necessarily involving personal dishonesty, which is hard to prove. As a result, in this case, the story became at least as much about how and why the RSPB felt it had to apologise, rather than the damage to the cause. 

Secondly, the focus shifts away from the expertise and authority of the charity, which is expert in matters to do with nature (or whatever its cause is) but is not so expert on the individual motivation and character of a Minister. How narrowly charities should define their area of knowledge and authority deserves a whole article in itself, but in general any charity that moves high profile public contributions away from that area is taking a risk with the value of its currency and its credibility. 

Thirdly, there is the possible impact on supporters and donors. Theres no one-size-fits-all answer, as charities are so varied, but attacking an individual’s character, e.g. by accusing them of lying, or cowardice, or arrogance, is moving away from the shared vision and enthusiasm for the cause that binds a diverse Trustee body, membership or donor base together, and you may upset and lose some who think you should be playing the ball. If you attack the person instead, theres also a risk that people will read an underlying personal or party-political antagonism into this, detracting from your message. And theres also the impact on your interlocutors in Government and beyond: are they more, or less, likely to engage fruitfully in future if you attack their personal integrity? 

Finally, there’s a wider but important issue about the coarsening of public debate, in social media and some print and broadcast media. We all recognise the dangerous tendency to polarise into echo chambers who shout abuse at each other and listen only to the views each already holds. There, the currency of playing the person is the norm: rather than addressing the argument, the job is done if you dismiss the person as a venal paid puppet, a self-seeker, a liar or some other sort of contemptible sub-human who is not worth listening to. These are the weapons of choice of populists, propagandists, self-publicists and those who won’t listen to those who disagree. 

Trustees have to ask themselves: if we buy into this tendency to play the person (defined as attacking personal worth, integrity and character), what are we doing to the nature of public debate in this country on which our cause may depend? If advancing our cause requires people listening to evidence-based argument, is a race to the bottom likely to be good for it? 

Those are all serious risks that have to be set against the sometimes widespread and positive attention grabbed by an arresting personal accusation. In the end, it’s the Trustees who have to weigh all this up for their particular charity. If it helps them reflect on all these considerations, then perhaps that old sporting metaphor has its uses after all.