“Good News” – the recognition of charitable journalism

Stone King client the Public Interest News Foundation, PINF, has registered as a charity, with new charitable purposes. PINF is established to support “public interest news” – journalism and news produced to high standards of objectivity and accuracy – for the benefit of the public.

The development of this new charitable purpose is important to journalism, and the charity sector, but also the general public. Until now, the financial models which underpin journalism have been dominated by private ownership models and limited, state-funded bodies, like the BBC.

Restrictions on sources of funding and limited ownership models have led many to conclude that the news “market” is failing (including Dame Frances Cairncross, in her Review of Public Interest Journalism). It has become increasingly dominated by media conglomerates in private ownership – and social media. Conglomerates centralise reporting, threaten smaller, independent providers and contribute to a lack of diversity. Private news ownership means that news provision is often intentionally biased. Social media promotes content very effectively, but is not a substitute for facts-based research and journalism.

All of these factors have impacted on the quality of news itself, and the public’s ability to access high quality journalism. In some cases, the failure of local newspapers has meant a complete absence of local news. Recently, this has increasingly led to calls for objective, fact-based journalism to be recognised as a charitable purpose in its own right.

Until now, this had not occurred. The limited number of charities which carried out journalistic activities previously, generally did so under “educational” purposes, which inherently restricted their activities to what is educational in charity law. Fundamentally, education is a poor fit for many important journalistic activities. The Charity Commission’s recognition of the new public interest journalism purpose under the charity law heading “citizenship” removes those constraints and also recognises that access to objective, fact-based news is a fundamental requirement of citizenship and a healthy democracy.

It is hoped that this development will facilitate charitable support – and, possibly, even charitable ownership – of news providers. This will contribute to media plurality and support high-quality news provision, ultimately, for the benefit of the public.

By PINF’s definition, “public interest news” is required to be objective and non-party-political. It must be produced for the benefit of members of the public, providing them with the information they require to make informed decisions as citizens, for example when casting votes in elections or holding those who represent them to account. The new charitable purpose which has been accepted by the Commission and the full definition of “public interest news” are reproduced below.

It is important to note that the PINF decision is not a binding legal precedent. Applicant charities seeking to register under the citizenship purpose may still struggle to convince the Commission that they are charities. However, this is an important milestone, demonstrating that this route is possible.

Dame Frances Cairncross, has welcomed this development:

My Review found a market failure in the supply of public interest news. Among other things, I recommended that public interest journalism should be recognised as a charitable object. So, I am delighted that the Charity Commission has granted PINF charitable status.”

Lord Richard Inglewood, former Chair of the House of Lords Communications Committee, has commented:

“As a former newspaper publisher, I know how hard it is these days to pay for good journalism. In 2012, when I was Chair of the House of Lords Communications Committee, we recommended that bona fide investigative journalism should be charitable, in order to attract grants and donations. Now, as a trustee of PINF, I am very glad that we can provide public interest news publishers with charitable support.”

Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director of PINF, explains the significance of registration as follows:

“This decision means we can ensure the public have access to high-quality, independent news, by supporting public interest publishers with grants, training and resources. We have already awarded emergency grants to publishers who were struggling during lockdown, and now we can support more public interest news organisations across the UK.”

Stone King is delighted to have been involved in this development. It follows substantial work in this field over many years and builds upon past work assisting with the registration of new charitable purposes associated with open-source information (Wikimedia) and ethical, Leveson-compliant regulation of the press (the Independent Press Regulation Trust).

Notes

The formal decision of the Charity Commission is here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-registration-decision-public-interest-news-foundation/charity-registration-decision-public-interest-news-foundation

The new “citizenship” charitable purpose adopted by PINF and accepted by the Charity Commission is:

“promote citizenship and civic responsibility and encourage and facilitate informed participation and engagement by members of the public in their communities, including by supporting the provision of Public Interest News by exclusively charitable means”.

The full definition of “Public Interest News” is:

news and other information which is produced and disseminated to the public according to high standards of ethical conduct and best practice in journalism and which provides one or more of the following benefits to the public: 

  • informs members of the public about matters of relevance to their role and responsibilities as citizens;
  • enables members of local communities to become aware of and understand matters of common concern to them as members of their community and which promotes their involvement and cooperation in such matters and community cohesion accordingly;  
  • enables members of the public to participate in an informed manner in relevant democratic processes and, as a result, supports the legitimacy of the democratic process as a whole;  
  • benefits the public by promoting charitable educational outcomes, such as improving public understanding of health and medical matters or the conservation of the environment;

and specifically excludes material which is simply entertaining in nature, politically motivated, biased or inaccurate, or which fails to observe a person’s right to privacy.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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