Some of Britain’s biggest charities have backed a new campaign urging the Newspaper Licensing Agency to exempt charities from paying fees.
More than 1,000 charities currently pay annual fees worth £1.3m to the agency, which is owned by eight publishers of national newspapers, including News International, Guardian Media Group and Northern & Shell.
Individual charities are charged as much as £25,000 for licences, although the average annual fee for large charities is £7,000.
The licences allow them to legally undertake media monitoring activities, such as putting links on intranet articles and sharing web links. Even charities that photocopy newspaper articles for internal use are supposed to pay fees.
CharityComms, the professional body for charity communicators leading the campaign, claims charities should be exempt because it places an "unfair burden" on them.
"Charities are not profit-making businesses and they do not monitor the press for any commercial gain," said Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms.
CharityComms published today the research report Charities and Media Licensing today to support its campaign.
Based on surveys with 375 charity communicators in 2010 and 184 in 2011, the report reveals widespread discontent about the fee system and the way it is run.
Many respondents believed they were effectively paying to get access to stories their media teams had generated.
"Over 60 per cent of respondents say that more than 90 per cent of their media monitoring are articles about themselves," it says.
"Journalists are at worst regurgitating and at best synthesising the stories that charities have given them."
The report says one particularly "head-scratching" aspect of the system is that "charities are being charged to do what any individual can do for free: copy a newspaper article by pointing people to the website address".
The report also brands the fee system "complex and confusing" and characterises the agency’s approach to enforcing it as "heavy-handed and intimidating".
"The agency’s critics, who are in the majority, characterise its approach as confrontational and threatening, relying on confusing legal language to scare charities into compliance," it says.
"It appears that sometimes they believe they have the law on their side and so they don’t feel the need to treat fee-payers with courtesy and respect."
Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: "I think newspaper readers would be shocked to learn how the licensing system squeezes cash out of the charity sector."
David Pugh, managing director of the Newspaper Licensing Agency, said it agreed the current system with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in 2003.
He said all charities received discounts and those with fewer than five staff and turnovers of less than £250,000 were already exempt.
"Charities, like other organisations that make use of newspaper content, should pay for the value they receive from that published content," said Pugh.
He said charities paid for communications staff and services, such as media monitoring, and this was a discretionary service they were not forced to buy.
Pugh denied staff were heavy-handed and threatening but said they had been shown the report as part of their customer training programme.