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Read all about it: when can journalism be charitable?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Governance, Law, Public Trust

A large stack of newspapers.

The government has today (27 January 2020) responded to the recommendations made in Dame Frances Cairncross’s independent review of the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK.

The response recognises that charities can and do use journalism as a tool to further their charitable purposes, but some may struggle to understand their options.

The Commission knows that high-quality public interest journalism can play an important role in improving lives and strengthening society.

Our register includes a number of charities involved in journalism and related media work. Some of these charities focus on local issues, like the Burngreave Messenger (charity number 1130836), which publishes a free, independent community newspaper in the Burngreave Ward in Sheffield.

Others have educational missions. For example, The Conversation UK (charity number 1151436) publishes an online news and commentary website, with articles written by the academic and research community for the general public.

Our register also includes charities engaged in educational and capacity building initiatives relating to journalism, like the Centre for Investigative Journalism (charity number 1118602), which trains reporters in the principles and practice of investigative journalism.

However charitable status is not right for every news organisation, so I want to take this opportunity to help news organisations decide whether or not charitable status is right for them.

To meet the legal test for registration, you will need to show that your organisation is set up for charitable purposes only. A charitable purpose is one that:

The advancement of journalism is not listed in the Charities Act as a charitable purpose in and of itself. This means that news organisations would need to be able to show that the journalism they fund or carry out is a means to achieving other, charitable purposes.

A charitable news organisation might therefore further charitable purposes like the advancement of education, citizenship or community development, the arts, culture, heritage or science, or human rights. What matters is that you can draw a clear link between the journalism your organisation funds or carries out and the charitable purposes it is set up to advance.

Being a charity is a privilege, which brings with it the responsibility to show that everything you do, and every decision you make, helps deliver on the charity’s purpose and upholds the special status charities have.

For example, if your news organisation is set up to advance citizenship or community development, the Commission would expect you to be able to show it how journalism translates into public participation and engagement, either in terms of decision making or participation in democratic processes; or how public benefit is demonstrated in terms of the difference your organisation makes to individual citizens.

If your news organisation is set up to advance education, the Commission would expect you to be able to show how you make sure that the information you publish is independent and free from bias.

The Commission has published the reasons for its  decision to register the fact-checking organisation Full Fact as a charity, which help show how we apply these principles in practice.

The government’s response to the Cairncross Review explains that charity law imposes other restrictions, which can also make charitable status less appropriate for some news providers. For example, charities cannot:

If you are thinking about setting up a charity, our guidance, Set up a charity: step by step will help you make an informed decision about whether this is the right option for your news organisation. The guidance also contains information to help you navigate the registration process, as well as links to more detailed guidance on key issues.

I hope this blog will also help news organisations that are already registered as charities to understand when and how they can carry out or fund journalism as part of their charitable work.

Journalism can be a powerful tool, but charities have a responsibility to make sure that they use it in a way that is true to their charitable mission.

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