Editorial: Commission needs to come off the fence

Tania Mason, deputy editor

After months of trying to persuade the Charity Commission to make its CC9 guidance on political campaigning less ambiguous - and failing because, apparently, they do not represent a wider sector mandate - People & Planet and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation have launched an online survey to gather evidence of support for a more permissive approach by the commission.

The survey couldn't be more timely. While some in the sector have spent the past few months banging the drum for more service delivery, others have striven to preserve and expand charities' campaigning and advocacy roles. They even appeared to have the Government's blessing - the Strategy Unit report recommended that the commission revise CC9 to make it clear that charities can be political as long as it is ancillary to their core purpose, and in September 2004 this was duly done.

But Ofcom's September ruling that a Make Poverty History ad was too political brought the campaigning community back down to earth and highlighted the yawning gap between the rhetoric about charities' ability to campaign and the reality.

Not only is there a contradiction between CC9 and the Communications Act clause that ads can't be political, but there is also inconsistency in what you can get away with in a broadcast advert and what you can say in print. The print watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, only deems ads political if they seek to sway voters in an election. So you can say things in a press advert that you can't say on TV.

Yet CC9 currently ignores the fact that Ofcom even exists. It also omits to spell out the relevant contents of the various criminal justice laws that campaigners could find themselves falling foul of, such as the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, the Public Order Act or the Anti-Terrorism Act. This is presumably because the commission would say that no charity should be breaking any law, but some may not even know they are doing so. If the commission is serious about supporting the sector's campaigning role, surely its guidance should be clearer about the risks.

Another proposal, to be explored at next Monday's Charity Law Conference, is whether the sector should try to secure a change to the Communications Act that would exempt charities from the rule prohibiting political advertising and oblige Ofcom to be guided by CC9. That might persuade the commission to look again at its guidance, even if charities can't.

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