Cairncross Submission 1/4: Allow charitable status for journalism

This is the first of four suggestions I made to the Cairncross Review in September 2018. [Here are the secondthird and fourth.]

Charitable status

Submissions by other parties, including Rachel Oldroyd/The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, George Brock, William Perrin, Martin Moore/CMPS, KCL, Will Moy/Full Fact, Steven Barnett, and no doubt many others, will have laid out the compelling evidence in favour of re-examining the issue of charitable status for journalism. I will not re-tread the technical and legal arguments here, save to say that a clear outcome and recommendation of the Review ought to be for the formal recognition of the charitability of public benefit journalism in England and Wales.

The environment has changed markedly since the last time this was discussed in earnest, in 2012 at the time of the Leveson Inquiry, and the range of stakeholders who would now support such a status change are far greater in number, diversity and influence. From the journalism side, it is clear that there has been a material change in the environment — revenue collapse, platform dominance, shrinking journalistic workforce, emerging news deserts, which now tips the balance strongly in favour of the arguments made previously, and the updated arguments and analysis presented by the submissions I mention above.

But in the broader environment too — to which the existence of this Review attests — the atmosphere has changed, and concerns are growing. The research base has strengthened considerably, including with international cases, and the interest of the philanthropic sector in supporting quality journalism and information is growing rapidly. This situation is not unique to the UK, and parallel debates have been underway in AustraliaCanadaGermany and elsewhere (including Wales). An unequivocal signal from the UK that journalism is considered, under law, to be of public benefit, would undoubtedly carry weight in the debates in those countries too.

There is now considerable and growing evidence of philanthropic interest in funding journalism and its enabling environment within the UK. Although, for obvious reasons, there are no domestically-focused funders yet of the scale of Knight who solely fund journalism, media and information, many funders are expressing their concern for journalism, and are wondering what they can do to help — not to provide handouts, but to help protect the parts of the ecosystem that are of public benefit, and to help increase the diversity and resilience of the sector.

Ariadne, a UK-based European peer-to-peer network of more than 600 funders and philanthropists who support social change and human rights, conducts an influential survey-based annual Forecast. In 2017 for the first time it specifically mentioned journalism as a matter of importance, and then again in 2018:

Work on media and journalism is expected to become an urgent priority, as fake news continues to spread and journalists increasingly come under attack. Investigative journalism will play an important role in 2018, as it has already demonstrated in 2017 with the release of the Panama Papers. In addition to combating the toxicity of fake news, many donors highlight addressing hate speech as a priority.

This concern and interest endures and grows. In response to demand from non-specialist members for support to think more strategically about how to support media in the UK and beyond, Ariadne commissioned me to write a resource/guide for grantmakers new to media funding, [developed with] the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a US-based donor collaborative that includes UK DfID among its members, and [part-funded by] the David and Elaine Potter Foundation.

It is a theme growing in interest for UK philanthropists and funders, as evidenced by this selection of well-attended events on it in the last 18 months alone:
> Journalism Funders Forum UK, 05/2017 — report and background paper
> The Philanthropy Workshop, 11/2017 — event listing / agenda
> Alliance Magazine Breakfast Club — Philanthropy and the media, 01/2018
> Philanthropy Impact, 09/2018 — event listing

Unlocking the charitable status question would not only release the pent-up interest and investment of a wide variety of funders, but could also have wider positive knock-on effects for other potential supporters of UK journalism and media, including the following possible effects:
– Journalism funders [not being able to] fund media that, although they provide a clear public benefit, are not registered charities, is inefficient, deprives the community of information resources, and diminishes media innovation and diversity
– Funders who focus on specific places (place-based funders) instinctively understand that quality trusted media and information is crucial to local ecosystems — civic life, health, economies, education, the arts, social cohesion and so on. This cannot survive without outside or concerted support, and needs to be seen as part of the key infrastructure of local communities.
– Media investors — including mission-driven ones like MDIF or North Base Media — are looking to invest in the parts of the sector that make money, but are aware there are major parts of the sector that cannot survive on commercial revenue, and lose their value if they do. These investors regularly work with and engage philanthropic sources of funding to try to grow the flow of money to the sector — this could be an outcome here in the UK too. As philanthropic funders used to working with other thematic areas enter the journalism field, this might also have an impact on other investors, notably those from the social and impact investment fields, including those using social impact bonds and other innovative forms of social, humanitarian, and environmental finance.

As noted both by the international civil society alliance Civicus, and by the Civil Society Futures Report in England, journalism and civil society are closely intertwined, and threats to journalism and its independence are a threat to the ability of civil society to do its work. For the proper circulation and dialogue of ideas, society needs a healthy and independent media that can sustain itself partly through other sources than commercial investment or advertising. Civil society funders too are concerned that as journalism continues to weaken and be weakened, this limits the ability of society to hold power to account, root out injustice, and address poverty.

It’s also worth noting that civil society organisations are supporting editorially independent investigative journalism units like Greenpeace’s Unearthed, Tax Justice Network spinout Finance Uncovered, and, in the US, Transparentem.

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