Bias and Balaclavas

A too-small police presence at the Boxing Day Protest in Lacock  for the Avon Vale Hunt Meet was insufficient to prevent violence from breaking out between opposing groups. Several complaints and prosecutions later, police appeared to over-compensate by sending an astonishing number of officers to two further meets of the Avon Vale, apparently focussing their efforts on the hunt saboteurs and ignoring the illegal hunting that was happening in front of them. Anger and controversy resulted, and Phillip Wilkinson, PCC for Wiltshire joined in, making his views of hunt saboteurs very clear indeed. In the end, Mr Wilkinson agreed that it might be a good idea to meet with Pip from AAF to talk through the issues and see if the differences could be resolved. However, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT BETWEEN Phillip Wilkinson, PCC for Wiltshire AND ANTI-HUNTING GROUPS AND INDIVIDUALS

On 19th February 2022, a number of Frontline Wildlife Guardians (FWGs)  travelled to Wiltsthire in order to follow the Avon Vale Hunt. They did this because the previous week, a member of this hunt had seriously injured a FWG, putting them in hospital with a brain bleed. A large number of officers from Wiltshire Police attended. The officers focused on the FWGs and did not pay any attention at all to the hunt, who were obviously hunting illegally. Here is the full report:

https://www.facebook.com/wiltshirehuntsaboteurs/posts/136833295497097

Afterwards, we, and some other members of the public, wrote to Phillip Wilkinson,  Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire, to ask why this happened. Where was the police’s impartiality, we asked? Why look at the FWGs and not the hunt?

Here is the reply from the PCC:

When I can see on social media that a large number of individuals intend to disrupt a legal activity and 30 to 40 turn up in black balaclavas in order to hide their identify, the reasonable assumption is that their intention is to disrupt public order and cause harm. My job and that of Wiltshire Police is ensure that the law is enforced impartially and that public safety and public order maintained. If that does not suit your political agenda is unfortunate but it is not my job or that of Wiltshire Police to pander to any agenda simply enforce the law impartially.

Mr Willkinson appears to believe that this is “impartial” policing. But if this really were “impartial policing” the police would have been looking at the hunt AS WELL AS the FWGs.

A few weeks later, Wiltshire police mounted another operation against anti-hunting groups. This was on March 12th 2022, when two sabs groups attended the closing meet of the Avon Vale Hunt. A Freedom of information request revealed that Wiltshire Police used these resources:

53 officers and 20 vehicles were used. We estimate the cost of this to be in excess of £15, 000. We have based this on previous answers to FOI’s relating to policing Boxing Day Meets in other areas.

Wiltshire residents have complained about the cost. In his replies, Mr Wilkinson has called the widely publicised conviction of Mark Hankinson “propaganda” and he has claimed to have attended two hunts covertly:

https://www.facebook.com/wiltshirehuntsaboteurs/posts/147221231124970

This peculiar claim has generated several Freedom of Information Requests – essentially because no one actually believes him.

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/pccs_covert_operation_against_hu?fbclid=IwAR2NwKv4dC8zobYFTAFPCCw6d90LIJmg-fuZknuuvQqP2OPx4VIslb__hmg#incoming-2013935

And one more thing – here is a reply from Mr Wilkinson on his own FB page to someone who asked about policing illegal foxhunting:

https://www.facebook.com/philwilkinsonpcc/posts/155599846856240

 

We feel that Mr Wilkinson has over-simplified the issue, bringing  it down to one thing only – BALACLAVAS. All we are asking is that he, and others like him, look at both sides, and not just one.

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Meeting between Pip Donovan Action Against Foxhunting, Phillip Wilkinson, PCC for Wiltshire, Victoria Exley from the OPCC and Inspector Graham McLaughlin

Friday 22 April 2022, 3.30pm, Wiltshire Police Headquarters

It is impossible to produce a coherent account of this meeting. Mr Wilkinson was defensive and accusing and I was confounded by his unprofessional behaviour. Facts and information were few, and direct answers to direct questions almost non-existent.

However, the police officer did provide some clear answers, and I have included those.

Since February this year, Phillip Wilkinson has been in public conflict with anti-hunting individuals and groups.

Amongst other comments, Mr Wilkinson has called hunt saboteurs “black clad thugs”, and accused them of “screaming abuse in the faces of children”. He claimed to have “been to two hunts covertly” and witnessed this behaviour for himself. Putting these comments together with police action at two hunts (19th February and 12th March) where a significant number of police officers attended the hunts and appeared to focus their attention solely on the sabs and not the hunt, Mr Wilkinson was then accused of being biased against the sabs and for the hunt: in other words, he was not acting impartially. PCCs swear an “Oath of Impartiality” when they take office, so accusing him of not being impartial is a big deal.

For a detailed summary of the events, please click here.

What happened at the meeting?

Before I even sat down, or opened my laptop, Mr Wilkinson began to berate me angrily. “What are you going to do,” he said, “about the accusations you have made against me?” “Not ME,” I said “I haven’t accused you.” (All I have said is that he has shown bias against sabs, and that is most certainly true). He went on to clarify his problem. He had received on line abuse from “thousands of people” questioning his attitude to hunting and saboteurs.

I found Mr Wilkinson’s negative emotions a serious barrier to any real discussion. At one point, I stopped and asked him what exactly his problem was with me personally? Why was he treating me like this, when I had come to see if I could help? He told me that I was representing all the people who had abused him online. I had already made it very clear that neither myself in a personal capacity or AAF condone any abuse at all, online or in person, and that I was not defending anybody who had “trolled” him online.

I began by showing Mr Wilkinson the distressing video of the fox chased and savaged by the Belvoir hunt on 17th January 2022 – the one that was still alive. Not only did I want him to see what the hunts actually do to animals, but I also wanted him to see and hear the distress of the sabs. As it began, Mr Wilkinson huffed and frowned and made gestures of impatience. “What’s the point of this?” he said, openly irritated. I asked him if he was moved by the video in any way. “No,” he said. “You know my background? I have seen worse than this in the army.” I showed him a picture of a young woman (a sab) holding a savaged, dead fox – the pain and suffering clear on both the face of the fox and the face of the sab. Did he care? No, he said, he did not care.

I explained to Mr Wilkinson why I had become an activist. I thought if I was open with him and willing to share my personal involvement, he might gain a greater understanding of the issues, given that I was sitting there in front of him. He said I was “banging on” and that I was “passionate and prejudiced”.

I asked Mr Wilkinson these questions:

Had he read Counting the Crimes?

https://www.actionagainstfoxhunting.org/police-and-foxhunting/

He had a copy in front of him. No, he hadn’t. In fact, he appeared to find my question insulting.

Had he seen the video of Wiltshire Police herding the sabs away from the hunt, when the hunt was obviously hunting illegally right behind them? Did he understand the tongue rolling noise being made by the huntsman? Mr Wilkinson said I was trying to “catch him out”.

Did he understand that hunts are hunting illegally most of the time? Reluctantly, he said that he did accept to an extent, but public order was the priority in Wiltshire and not breaches of the Hunting Act. 

Mr Wilkinson made these additional points:

He has no connections with the hunt. I said he was believed to have connections with the Simpson family, who host the hunt on their land. He said he didn’t know the Simpsons.

When I asked about one particular comment he made saying that he would ignore “unbalanced hunt BS from the sabs and the other class warriors”, he said he posted it when he was “angry”.

Mr Wilkinson said that his wife saw a tweet saying that the hunt would get a “good kicking” at the mass sab (I’m unclear whether this was 19th Feb, or 12th March).  Mr Wilkinson said he “took it to the Chief Constable”.  But there is no evidence whatsoever to back this up, so what he actually took to the Chief Constable is unclear. I asked for a screen print and there isn’t one.

Mr Wilkinson said he was liberal* and a democrat. (*it is possible I misheard, and he said “libertarian”).

I did not ask, but Mr Wilkinson said several times that his views on hunting were private.

Mr Wilkinson has looked at a hunt sab FB page (I’m guessing Wiltshire Sabs) and decided their cover photo was very disturbing:

 

Inspector McLaughlin made these points:

The whole series of police operations began with the Boxing Day protest at Lacock, where the police failed to keep order as they they sent too few officers*. There was a number of complaints.

 *(but of the ?two they did send, one of them is an active member of the hunt).

For the operation on February 19th (where the police sent a large number of officers to the Avon Vale meet), police received intelligence that several sab groups would attend. (This is the day referred to earlier in this statement when clear videos were taken of the police asking sabs to leave private land, with blatant hunting  – a criminal offence taking place metres away).

For the police operation on 12th March, police received further intelligence, hence the huge numbers of officers and vehicles. These officers were drafted in and the normal core work of the police was maintained.

https://www.facebook.com/wiltshirehuntsaboteurs/posts/146067324573694)

(However, Mr Wilkinson has said in an email that it didn’t cost the force any more than usual. If they drafted in extra officers, surely that must cost more?)

Wiltshire Police are tackling illegal foxhunting. On 19th Feb and 12th March, they were also looking at the hunt’s activities. Police offered no evidence to support this.  They have a drone and plan to utilise it next season. However, they do not prioritise training on the Hunting Act, so the number of officers who can recognise and take action on illegal hunting is unlikely to increase. Police did not agree to confirm any of this in writing. I was just expected to accept it on face value.

My Conclusions

Has Mr Wilkinson been desensitised to suffering because he was in the army for a long time?

Only partially. While he was completely unconcerned by the suffering of a wild animal or the suffering of the young woman holding a savaged fox, he was deeply concerned by his own “suffering” (someone online had accused him of wearing a wig, apparently) and couldn’t see beyond it. He was also moved to take action when he saw the cover photo for Wiltshire Saboteurs. Pictures below:  A) and B) did not affect him, but picture C) did. Picture A is a still from the video I showed Mr Wilkinson – the fox was still alive at the time. Most people find photos of animal cruelty upsetting.

 

How did Mr Wilkinson get into such a pickle with his Social Media comments?

With regard to the comments Mr Wilkinson made on line about saboteurs and the responses he received, the first thing to point out is the rather childish, “You started it, Mr Wilkinson”. Mr Wilkinson should have either maintained a professional silence on the subject, or answered patiently, transparently and fairly. But he did not. His mistake was to respond with anger, adding fuel to the fire.

Social media can be an ugly place. Actual abuse from real “trolls” is less common than we think, but disagreements between posters happen all the time, and many of them end in personal insults. A PCC is a public figure, so negative social media attention is inevitable.

It is hard not to take online abuse personally, but a public figure must learn to shake it off and act professionally at all times. Additionally, it is absurd to conclude that if one person from a group acts badly, then they all do.

Has Mr Wilkinson been transparent and honest regarding all his alleged personal experiences with hunt related incidents?

Mr Wilkinson has claimed to be involved in several scenarios which appear to be either unsubstantiated by any actual proof, or simply don’t make practical or rational sense. I intended to clarify any possible misconceptions with Mr Wilkinson, however this was thwarted by his refusal to respond with anything other than fury.

 

Is Mr Wilkinson aware of the scale of fear and disruption the hunts cause to the general public?

Again, this is something I was keen to discuss but this was never going to happen in the oppressive environment of the meeting. AAF included a survey in Counting the Crimes 2 which included hundreds of quotes from appalled members of the public. If Mr Wilkinson had taken the time to prepare himself for the meeting by reading this report then he would have been aware of this.

 

Is there any learning for anti-hunting groups and individuals in this?

Mr Wilkinson said he had received thousands of abusive communications. While I saw none of them myself, I think it is likely that he received some – though I also think “thousands” is an exaggeration. I’ve had sight of several impeccably polite emails sent to him.  As everyone probably knows by now, AAF insists on good manners at all times, and we should not – however tempting it is – give in to our baser instincts and resort to insults. These insults just confirm the stereotype to people like Mr Wilkinson, and can only make things worse.

 

Is Mr Wilkinson failing to act impartially?

Mr Wilkinson described himself as a liberal and a democrat. (Not a Liberal Democrat). I know this view and have heard it before. My opinion is that Mr Wilkinson believes that if people want to hunt foxes, then they should be allowed to. He thinks the Hunting Act limits people’s freedom and he objects to that. He has very little compassion for foxes and cannot understand why anyone would want to protect them. However, he is not particularly interested in hunting himself.

 

It is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, clear that Mr Wilkinson has a negative view of saboteurs and refuses to even look at any evidence to the contrary. He said he had been to “two hunts covertly” and seen “black clad, balaclava wearing thugs shouting and screaming abuse in the face of children simply because they were riding ponies’. I doubt this, mainly because I know that doesn’t happen on a sab. I also noted that Mr Wilkinson was muddled about the difference between a protest and a sab. I have seen protesters (not necessarily sabs) shouting while children go past on ponies at a Boxing Day meet – but that is a protest and NOT a sab. Mr Wilkinson may have seen this too.

 

Having seen Wiltshire Hunt Sabs cover photo (above), Mr Wilkinson – who already believes the Hunting Act is an attack on civil liberties – had jumped to the erroneous conclusion that if someone looks like that, then they must be a thug.

 

Mr Wilkinson is not acting impartially when it comes to engaging with anti-hunt individuals and groups. PCCs are meant to engage with all sections of the community. ALL. Those of us involved in animal rights are a section of the community. But Mr Wilkinson, blinded by his clear and stated bias against saboteur groups, which he has extended to include all of us who object to illegal foxhunting whether sabs or not, was given an opportunity to engage with a member of that community (ie me). Unfortunately, it appears he did not see this as a meeting to discuss the situation at all, rather he viewed it merely as an opportunity to vent his anger in a frankly obnoxious manner. He was simply not interested or willing to try and understand my point of view.

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Pip Donovan 28th April 2022

Prosecutions following the boxing day riot at Lacock, 27/12/21

On many occasions, PCC Phillip Wilkinson and Wiltshire Police have said that they will enforce the law impartially. After the riot and violence at the Boxing Day Meet in Lacock, police prosecuted a number of individuals. Five people were prosecuted – three were hunt supporters and two were anti-hunt.

In April, the hunt supporters were convicted.

“William Renny, 30, Callum Lewis, 26, and Evan Lorne, 18, pleaded guilty to using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause unlawful violence.”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/apr/06/wiltshire-hunt-supporters-fined-after-admitting-clashing-with-saboteurs

In September, the anti-hunt individual were acquitted. Judge Dickens said that “Ultimately, the evidence is pretty thin, wafer thin…While there is just about a case to answer, the evidence is wafer thin and it won’t get any better, and for those reasons I won’t be able to be sure they were not acting in self-defence.”

In the opinion of AAF, the case against the hunt supporters was clear-cut, meaning that Wiltshire Police could find no reason to abandon it. However, the case against the anti-hunt individuals was very weak from the outset, but Wiltshire Police went ahead anyway. And the CPS followed suit.

To suit their own corrupt agenda, Wiltshire Police wasted public money by trying to prove that both sides were to blame for the riot. And they weren’t.

It was the hunt supporters who were to blame.

We have no doubt that PCC Phillip Wilkinson was behind this. Like the police, he had something to prove – that he was right in saying (among other things) that anti hunt individuals were “balaclava wearing thugs”. Of course he wasn’t right – we all said that at the time. Hopefully, Mr Wilkinson will reflect on his poor judgment and understand that his views were based on his blind, unsubstantiated prejudice.

If this wasn’t enough, Wiltshire Police concluded their review of the Lacock riot with this report:

https://www.wiltshire.police.uk/news/wiltshire/news/2022/september-2022/three-convicted-following-disorder-at-boxing-day-hunt/

There is NO MENTION of the fact that this meet was an illegal gathering. Wilfully blocking a highway without permission is a criminal offence – Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980. The photo above proves it without any shadow of a doubt. 

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Phillip Wilkinson and hare coursing

On 3rd October 2022, Mr Wilkinson appeared on Points West, in an item concerning Wiltshire Police and hare coursing. He was taking part in a ride-along with police and he stopped to make a comment to camera.

“..clearly it is not the hares we are worried about,” he said. He went on to say it was the damage to property that concerned him.

CLEARLY?? The Hunting Act IS worried about the hares, as is the National Wildlife Crime Unit and all of us too. 

Once more, we see the PCC acting in a biased way. Ignore the Hunting Act, he more or less said – but take account of damage to property.

4th October 2022, email from AAF to MrWilkinson. Awaiting reply

Dear Mr Wilkinson

Having seen your appearance on Points West last night, I feel bound to share my thoughts with you. You stated that “it’s not the hares (you) are really worried about” –  it’s the “property damage (that concerns you)”. You added “animal welfare” as an unconvincing afterthought.  

I have already learned that, unlike most people, you are not troubled by animal cruelty. Further, you have stated that you are impartial when applying the law. But your comments on Points West are inconsistent with even the latter. 

When hare coursers (or hare hunters – ie beagle packs) are out, they may be breaking two laws (at least) – the Hunting Act and the Criminal Damage Act. It is the Hunting Act which makes hare coursing illegal.  

Hare coursing is every bit as illegal as criminal damage.

Please answer these two questions:

Given that poaching is a national priority for the NWCU –  (including hare coursing), and you have stated that you are only concerned with breaches of the law, why did you not express your concern about breaches of BOTH laws, instead of just Criminal Damage?

The statutory aim of the Hunting Act is to “is to prevent.. suffering to wild mammals” and that “causing suffering to animal for sport is unethical”.  Is your lack of interest in the Hunting Act due to the fact that you don’t believe that causing suffering to an animal for sport is unethical?

Please don’t answer this email by saying that you are “impartial”. Your comments on Points West have thrown even greater doubt on your impartiality with regards to illegal hunting than there was before. My questions deserve a more honest response. 

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