Charitable status for journalism proceeds by one case at a time

Some publications already have charitable status as part of the broader activities of a charity, but one high-profile applicant has failed twice. Sam Burne James reports

Fitzrovia News operates as part of the activities of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association
Fitzrovia News operates as part of the activities of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association

The argument that charitable status should be available to certain news organisations – local papers, for example, or public interest investigative journalism – has been around for several years. In uncertain times for news organisations, it seems an attractive proposition – in theory, at least.

As for the practice, a 2012 House of Lords Communications Committee report asked the Charity Commission for "greater clarity on which activities related to the media – in particular, investigative journalism – are charitable in the current state of the law". The commission did not provide this; its response paper said it "has no current plans to consider this issue further in a policy context unless an application for registration raising this issue is made". The commission also made it clear that any such application would be considered on its own merits.

Some media activities already have charitable status as part of the broader activities of a charity. Examples include charities' member or supporter magazines, and the central London charity the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, which produces the news site and quarterly newspaper Fitzrovia News. This leaves the potential for charitable status for organisations whose primary output is news as something to be clarified only on a case-by-case basis through the commission's decisions, appeals against them and the resulting charity tribunal hearings.

One high-profile applicant that has twice failed is the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which pursues journalism in the public interest and makes its reports freely available. It expected to be granted charitable status when it was launched in 2010, but two applications were rejected by the commission. Christopher Hird, managing editor of the BIJ, says it decided against making a third application because "failure would be an inhibition to bodies that give us funding". Hird says it is unlikely to make a further application. "We made our contribution as a test case; we don't want to be a guinea pig again," he says.

But the path could be cleared for the BIJ and others. In June, a seminar at the University of Westminster in London brought together academics, lawyers, charities and would-be charities. Kenneth Dibble, the regulator's head of legal services, explained to delegates the legal difficulties, with a view to helping would-be charities to make better applications. The event's chair, Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the university, says it was a useful discussion. "I'm optimistic, but if there is no progress, the next step might be to consider whether to lobby government for a change in the law," he says.

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