Tuesday 17 September 2019 9:11 am

By standing up to its critics, the RNLI turned the tide

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

We Brits are a pretty generous lot, always happy to help out for a good cause. We’ve become used to the cycle of long-format telethons now, from Children in Need to Comic Relief, with people of all walks of life digging deep into their often sparsely filled pockets to see someone sit in a bath of baked beans. The figures seem to bear out this national open-handedness; nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say they have given to charity within the last year, and a quarter donate monthly. As a society, we give around £10 billion to good causes annually – but our generosity isn’t without its quirks. 

So when articles appeared in the Times revealing a £3.3 million spend on overseas projects to save them from drowning, Twitter, predictably, was appalled – and donations to the RNLI plummeted. Some called for “something to be done.” “It is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, not the Royal International Lifeboat Institution,” said one purple-faced Tory MP. Another added, “’I would say 99 per cent of the British public giving money to them have not the faintest idea it’s being diverted to projects overseas.”

But the RNLI remained steadfast. Rather than issuing a blanket apology, it stood proudly. It maintained that loss of life at sea was a global issue. Like a rock, it withstood the rough seas of criticism, and won. 

Let’s put this into some kind of perspective. The money spent by the RNLI abroad amounts to around 2% of their total expenditure. It’s a tiny amount. The RNLI responded with a very reasonable and moderate defence of its expenditure programme, and has pointed out that the organisation’s founder, Sir William Hillary, had intended its services to extend to the furthest and most distant parts of the globe. 

It is true that the RNLI is under unprecedented pressure in the UK, but surely our debate should be about the 98% of spending committed here and how to maximise its effect, not scrapping over the 2% which goes abroad? Has Brexit distorted our nation’s generosity so much that we have become completely immune to the plight of others? 

It doesn’t take an inveterate cynic to see an unpleasant narrative behind this development. Some British papers have a long track record of victimising the ‘other’, laying at the door of the blame for a whole swathe of society’s ills. This seems simply an extension of that trend. Essentially, one might as well say “The RNLI is there for white people.” That should be unacceptable, and so it would be if spoken aloud. Tacitly, though, as a society, we seem willing to tolerate it, at least on social media. But if faced with a person in trouble, could you really walk away? 

Britain is going through an exceptionally tough time, weathering a series of intense and divise storms, from Brexit all the way through to #MeToo. We are splintering as a society into individual, opposing groups of people, all protected behind the ramparts of our own self-righteousness, and polarisation has driven us apart. It seems that if you do not agree wholeheartedly with a person, you become their enemy, and must be opposed. 

Today, the RNLI – one of our most steadfast and noble institutions, run by volunteers for the good of all people – has shown us the way, and donations have surged. So many people tried to donate, they crashed the site. As one Twitter user remarked: “You’ll come out of this stronger and more respected than ever.” I for one hope they do. Maybe there’s a bigger metaphor here. We all need to resist the pressure from the crashing waves of social media, and stand up for what is right. 

This article has been amended to reflect the original source of the foreign RNLI spending story.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.