It was an unusual scene: a Daily Mail journalist sitting next to the director of communications at Oxfam, engaged in amicable discussion. But it was the sight that greeted the PR professionals who attended a panel discussion called Are Charities Under Attack by the Media? at the Media Trust Summit last November.
On the stage Katherine Faulkner, assistant news editor at the Daily Mail and the journalist behind the newspaper's investigation of charity fundraising practices this summer, was sitting to the right of Jack Lundie, director of communications at Oxfam, one of the charities under scrutiny as part of the probe into the methods of the now defunct telephone fundraising agency GoGen. The ITV News presenter Charlene White chaired the panel, which also featured Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, and Patrick Harrison, direction of reputation management at PR firm Weber Shandwick.
White kicked off the session with an unexpected request to delegates to refrain from taking photos or videos of the panellists - but moments later a man in the second row raised his phone to take a picture. "Excuse me!" barked White. "I told you not to do that three seconds ago." The man lowered the phone, muttering about wanting to tweet.
The reason for the rule became clear when Faulkner introduced herself to the audience. "It's for security reasons because I do undercover work," she apologised. But anyone wanting to test how strictly this was observed outside the event might have been bemused to find plenty of pictures of Faulkner on the internet.
Faulkner, who told Third Sector she had taken part in the panel to give delegates the chance to ask her why she carried out her investigation, listened carefully while Lundie answered White's first question: are the media attacking charities? He said the media often used misleading headlines about charities and some news organisations played fast and loose with the truth to make stories. But he recognised that the media had also played an important role in bringing to light shortcomings in fundraising, including at Oxfam.
Then it was Faulkner's turn. "Hopefully I'm going to bust the idea that my coverage was a concerted attack on charities," she began. Having looked withdrawn and stony-faced before the session began, she now smiled disarmingly, undermining any impression delegates might have had of her as a hard-hearted hack motivated by nothing but self-interest.
In fact, Faulkner said, she'd been through a painful time in her own career, when the phone-hacking scandal drew heightened criticism of the media industry, so she sympathised with the charity sector's anguish over recent media coverage. She said her newspaper had conducted its investigation only because it was contacted by a whistleblower who supplied detailed evidence of wrongdoing at GoGen. "If I wanted to attack the charity sector, it would be illegal to go and do a fishing expedition and see what I could find," she said.
Lundie was asked about Oxfam's experiences of being in the limelight for the wrong reasons. When did the charity first realise it was having a communications crisis? "It wasn't hard to know when Katherine sent her email on the Friday before publication," he said, to laughter. Did he see Faulkner coming? "No, I think that's clear." Could the charity's practices have been better? "I think we could have been more attentive," he said.
When addressing Faulkner, Lundie's approach was playful, but he also made a few barbed comments. He told the journalist that although trust in charities might have declined, it was still higher than that in the media. He joked that although she had not personally written the Mail's sensationalist headlines about Oxfam's Perfect Storm tweet last year, for which it was accused of being political, he thought it was all right to lump her in with her profession generally, since that was what the media had done to individual charities.
When the session ended, Lundie and Faulkner stayed behind and engaged in friendly chit-chat for a few minutes. "It's fundamental for charity PRs to understand where the media are coming from," Harrison had said earlier in the session. Lundie appeared to be following his advice.