The Charity Commission has granted charitable status to an organisation that supports public interest journalism, in a move lawyers said was the first of its kind.
The regulator has accepted an application for charitable status from the Public Interest News Foundation, which provides grants and leadership training to independent news outlets that produce news that is deemed to be in the public interest.
Lawyers working for the PINF said that in legal terms the decision represented a new interpretation of the law, and the organisation was the first to have a specific “charitable journalism” purpose.
A spokeswoman for the regulator clarified that the decision did not represent recognition of a new charitable purpose but rather an example of a new way in which an organisation could further charitable purposes already recognised in law.
The charity said the decision was a significant one for journalism, the charity sector and the news-reading public.
Public interest news must be politically neutral and produced to high ethical standards.
It excludes material that is simply entertaining in nature, biased or inaccurate, or failed to observe a person’s right to privacy.
It must also provide benefits including informing people about their role and responsibilities as citizens, enabling people to become aware of matters of common local concern, or promoting educational outcomes such as improving public health.
Jonathan Heawood, executive director of the PINF, estimated there were between 300 and 400 independent news operations around the UK that produced public benefit journalism, but said further research was needed to establish more precise numbers.
“Independent news providers are springing up all over the UK,” he said.
“They are serving communities with impartial journalism in the public interest. But they face huge challenges.
“This decision means we can ensure the public have access to high-quality, independent news, by supporting public interest publishers with grants, training and resources.
“We have already awarded emergency grants to publishers who were struggling during lockdown, and now we can support more public interest news organisations across the UK.”
Tom Murdoch, partner in the charity and social enterprise team at the law firm Stone King, which advised on the charity’s registration application, said: “While there are already a number of journalistic charities operating for educational and similar purposes, PINF is the first to be registered with a specific ‘charitable journalism’ purpose.
“In legal terms, this represents a new interpretation of the law to recognise that public benefit journalism can be charitable.”
The commission spokeswoman said public interest news had not in itself been accepted as a charitable object.
"This decision does not indicate a change in the law or set any kind of precedent," the she said.
"While the advancement of journalism is not listed in the Charities Act as a charitable purpose, charitable news organisations can further charitable purposes such as the advancement of education or citizenship, just as the Public Interest News Foundation has set out to do.
She said a blog published by the regulator in January indicated that what mattered in these cases was that a clear link could be drawn between journalism and the charitable purposes to be advanced.
“Our decision in this case makes clear that the purposes are, in summary, the advancement of education, the promotion of citizenship and civic responsibility and the promotion of high standards of ethical conduct and best practice in journalism, all of which are established charitable purposes," she said.
The decision comes after the Cairncross Review of Public Interest Journalism last year suggested that local news outlets would benefit from tax reliefs, which could be best achieved by granting them charitable status.
The government subsequently asked the Charity Commission to look into how some forms of journalism could be granted charitable status.
Dame Frances Cairncross, author of the review, said: “My review found a market failure in the supply of public interest news.
“Among other things, I recommended that public interest journalism should be recognised as a charitable object. So, I am delighted that the Charity Commission has granted PINF charitable status.”
The full reasons for the commission’s decision can be found here.