In June last year Oxfam tweeted a mock cinema poster of a surging sea with the title The Perfect Storm : starring zero hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment, childcare costs. Within hours the usual suspects were on the warpath. "This has lost you a lot of supporters," tweeted the Conservative MP Conor Burns. "Very foolish." His letter of complaint to the Charity Commission featured highly in a Daily Telegraph story that included protests by fellow Conservative MPs Charlie Elphicke, Robert Halfon and Priti Patel. The latter, who called the tweet "a disgraceful political campaign" and said Oxfam was "a mouthpiece for left-wing propaganda", is now the Treasury minister with responsibility for charities.
Six months later, a few days before Christmas, the commission released an operational compliance report, two and a half pages long, accepting that the charity had not intended to act in a party political way, but concluding that the tweet "could be misconstrued by some as party political campaigning" and that "the charity should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias by providing greater clarity and ensuring that the link to the Below The Breadline report was more obvious." This report, produced jointly by Oxfam, the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty, was due to be published the following week.
The commission’s wording carefully avoids any judgement about whether the tweet was or was not politically biased and concentrates instead on the question of perception. This approach stems from the fact that the commission’s guidance on political campaigning stresses that charities must not only avoid party political activity but also ensure that perceptions of their independence are unaffected. This raises the question of whether any such perceptions are reasonable. People with an axe to grind, after all, often take any opportunity, however spurious, to carry on grinding. The commission’s report does not go into this, but its strictures on Oxfam would suggest it considers the perceptions of the complainants to have been reasonable.
There also seems to be some acceptance by Oxfam that it could have avoided this unhelpful spat. The commission report points out that the charity has revised its governance framework for campaigning activity, partly to take account of the lobbying act, and updated its authorisation procedures for specific campaigns and the communications that go with them. The implication is that its previous procedures were not adequate.What the complainants think of the outcome is not clear: the Daily Telegraph has not followed up its story from last summer, and Conor Burns MP has not responded to Third Sector’s request for comment. No doubt the caravan has moved on.
Arising from the specific case, the commission’s report contains two vital general lessons for the sector. The first is to keep a closer eye on your social media, which may seem peripheral and emphemeral but which can be very durable and have all kinds of unforeseen consquences. The report says the same care needs to be taken over social media as over other material – including, crucially, having written authorisation and sign-off. The second lesson is that trustees need to roll up their sleeves and get involved in oversight of campaigning work. The election campaign has already started, charities are under particular scrutiny at the moment, and trustees are ultimately responsible for their reputation and independence.