Menu Close

Reform charity law to allow funding of public interest journalism

Getting the scoop. Shutterstock

Reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative MacTaggart lecture were predictably mixed. But amid proposals that attracted both acclaim and opprobrium in equal measure was one that was barely noticed. In looking for ways of sustaining new forms of journalism, Corbyn invoked the possibility of charity funding:

We should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism. That status would greatly help pioneering not-for-profit organisations … to fund their vital work through tax exemptions, grants and donations.

On the principle of finding new sources of funding for journalism, virtually everyone is agreed: the traditional business model of advertising is fundamentally broken, as newspaper circulations fall and the big tech giants like Google and Facebook cannibalise the money that used to flow to traditional publishers.

A lot to shout about but some local papers are closing. Shutterstock

While broadcasting remains less affected (and of course the BBC still benefits from licence fee funding), print and online publishers are struggling to survive. Local newspapers are closing in some areas, leaving a “democratic deficit” of people less well informed about their own hospitals, schools, transport, housing and so on, while local courts, councils, police forces and other local bodies attract very limited or no journalistic scrutiny and are therefore less accountable to local citizens.

The notion of charitable funding as a source of alternative revenue has been floated before, with politicians, academics, journalists and third sector groups all pushing for such an initiative. It is well established in the US, where many non-profit journalism enterprises benefit substantially from philanthropy. In 2012, the UK’s House of Lords Communications Committee, looking at the parlous state of funding for investigative journalism, urged the Charity Commission to provide greater clarity about what media activities might be classed as charitable under current law. More importantly, it encouraged the government to reform charity law as “the only way in which certainty in this area could be achieved”.

In its 2015 manifesto, in a section on democracy and citizenship, the Liberal Democrats promised to allow “non-profit local media outlets to obtain charitable status where the public interest is being served”. In academia, the idea has been explored in various roundtable meetings, papers and publications, including our own as part of a 2013-14 AHRC-funded project on media plurality and ownership.

As part of a comparative multi-authored report for the Reuters Institute and the Yale Information Society Project in 2016, one of us (Judith Townend) set out the ways in which news and journalism had been charitably funded in the UK within the constraints of the current system – through, for example, the creation of separate trusts that fund the charitable activity of a journalistic operation. Another report from the Cass Business School in 2017 also provided current examples of UK journalism benefiting from philanthropy.

But many of these models are clunky and overly restrictive and do not allow organisations to enjoy the full benefits of charitable status. Potential donors are likely to be discouraged. Many non-profits, which clearly contribute to a better informed citizenship and a more vibrant democracy, are either pushed back by the Charity Commission or are put off entirely by the laborious and costly application process. Full Fact – a clear example of democratic engagement in the public interest – took many years and several thwarted attempts to persuade the commission of its charitable merits. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism faced similar difficulties; although it has not secured status itself, a newly registered Trust will fund charitable elements of its work.

A more flexible approach, that recognises certain types of journalistic activity as fulfilling charitable objects and delivering public benefit, would allow organisations to undertake public interest journalism that is difficult to sustain commercially. But so far, there has been little public discussion or political support.

This could change with the establishment of the Cairncross Review, set up by Matt Hancock during his brief stint as culture secretary. Under the leadership of Dame Frances Cairncross, the review is designed to investigate “how to sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism in a changing market”.

Great journalism in the hands of consumers. Shutterstock

While there are some concerns that the review might be hijacked by incumbent corporate interests seeking subsidies for their existing operations (fuelled by the existence of several “old school” newspaper hacks on the expert panel), there is also optimism that some genuinely creative and radical ideas might be forthcoming – including greater discretion for charitable recognition of certain kinds of journalism. Cairncross herself referred to the notion of “philanthropic support of some sort” when recently interviewed on the Media Show.

There are clearly issues to be resolved, not least who will assess whether charitably funded journalistic output genuinely meets charitable criteria and remains within legal constraints on political activity. The Charity Commission itself might find the prospect too politically sensitive, and the current press self-regulator IPSO is much too close to (and owned by) established press interests to be appropriate for the task. Communications regulator Ofcom is one obvious candidate.

But with some creative thinking and greater political will, it may at last be possible to open up some much-needed additional funding for journalism – which will not only enrich democracy but also provide outlets for talented journalists who increasingly struggle to find sustainable employment within traditional media outlets.

The Conversation disclosure: Jo Adetunji, deputy editor, is a member of the Cairncross Review panel. The Conversation has charitable status and is funded by universities and philanthropic organisations.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 186,800 academics and researchers from 4,994 institutions.

Register now