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?
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.
(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.
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