Charity Commission remains tight-lipped on Ofcom's Institute of Economic Affairs ruling

The Charity Commission has declined to comment on whether it is considering any regulatory action against the Institute of Economic Affairs following a decision by the media regulator.

Ofcom this week cleared the LBC radio presenter James O’Brien of any wrongdoing after he claimed on air two years ago that the charitable think tank was a politically motivated lobbying organisation funded by “dark money”.

The IEA complained to the media regulator Ofcom that the radio station had made a series of inaccurate and unfair suggestions.

The charity’s aims include “promoting learning by means of research into economics and politics and to improve public understanding thereof”.

But O’Brien accused the charity of being a professional lobby group of “questionable provenance, with dubious ideas and validity”, and another guest described the charity as “politically biased” during a discussion on the funding of think tanks.

Ofcom cleared LBC of any wrongdoing in relation to the claims. 

In response to the ruling, the charity described it as a “nuisance” to deal with an “incompetent state regulator fanning the delusions of conspiracy theorists peddling smear campaigns”.

O’Brien had also urged newspapers to stop quoting from an organisation that is registered as “as an educational charity because they don’t reveal who funds them”.

According to its latest accounts up to the end of December 2019, its total income was just over £2m, half a million pound less than in the previous year. 

It reported a 23 per cent decrease in the number of donations in 2019 and its total expenditure of charitable activities was about £2.5m. 

A commission spokesperson said: “We are aware of the Ofcom ruling. We cannot comment further at this time.”

Asked if the Ofcom decision could have any bearing on the IEA’s charitable status, a spokesperson for the think tank said: “This long-delayed Ofcom decision has no bearing on the IEA’s charitable status, which is not at risk from a broadcasting regulator’s ruling on our right to reply to a failed smear campaign in 2019.

“Our view was that if regulated broadcasters invite guests on to attack a charity, that charity should be contacted for comment. Ofcom disagrees. 

“It’s a bizarre decision, but one that has an upside for a more diverse and opinionated media landscape.”

The commission does not have the power to remove a charity’s legal status on the basis of concerns about the way a charity has been managed but instead examines matters through the lens of whether the charity’s trustees were complying with their legal duties and responsibilities. 

The regulator previously issued an official warning to the IEA in February 2019 over the publication of a report about Brexit.

The commission said it had concluded that contents of the report and an associated launch event "amounted to misconduct and mismanagement" by the charity’s trustees.

But the warning was withdrawn four months later after a review by one of the commission’s board members concluded that although it was correct to issue the warning, its handling of the case was "not as good as it should have been".

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