Mark Flannagan: Shooting the messenger is rarely a good idea

We might not like all of the stories the media writes but we should respect its right to publish, argues our columnist

I was puzzled and alarmed by some reaction to Third Sector’s coverage of a survey about charity staff giving (Almost a third of charity workers don't give to good causes). Offence was taken at our sector journal covering what was described by one as a "junk survey". Another commentator asked the editor for a justification of why the story was published. The Twitter exchange around this rapidly became heated. All of this led to me to worry about some apparent views within our sector that the media shouldn’t be allowed to publish some stories. 

This leads me to ask some questions. Why do many in our sector expect to be treated differently? Why is there an expectation that our sector news journal should simply be a cheerleader for our good works? Why is it okay to say the media should ignore a news story because we view it as biased, wrong, or ill informed?

I think that until the last couple of years our sector has been too sheltered from scrutiny. With recent scandals and coverage the genie is out of the bottle and it just doesn’t do to complain that it won't go back in. It’s no use whinging about media coverage from any source. We have to learn to live with it and deal with it.

My career has been based around handling communications. At one time I was a press officer for the BBC and was part of a team handling many controversies and crises when John Birt was director-general. In that time, I learned that the awkward and annoying questions shouldn’t be complained about but dealt with. I learned that what we often saw as deliberately misinterpreted news stories in time turned out to have at least a grain of truth about them. In many cases, the story proved to be fully accurate and it was our corporate culture that was in denial.   

While it was infuriating to deal with an awkward truth and to see what we saw as a misleading story published, at no point did we deny the right of a journalist to examine and publish. Unlike the US, we may not have free speech as a constitutional right, but we do have a tradition of protecting the media’s right to free examination. Of course, we can all name stories we think are ridiculous and media behaviour we abhor. But this shouldn’t lead us to dispute the right to publish, or to shoot the messenger.

After all who decides what is accurate and fair? Think about it. If we as a sector decided then the recent scandals wouldn’t have been heard about and the vital changes that have resulted would never have happened. We would still be paddling along on our placid charity water while ignoring the froth and turmoil below us. At the end of the day, give me a free media, including and especially our own Third Sector, publishing the interesting, challenging and different. Anything else is comfortable, uninspiring and dull. And, in any case, we would do well to remember what Mark Twain said: "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel".

Mark Flannagan is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer. @MarkFlannCEO

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