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Pressing concerns

Finance | Ian Allsop | 1 Jun 2012

Charity CEOs can’t all form horse-riding friendships with a newspaper editor, bemoans Ian Allsop.

There has been plenty of media coverage about press ethics recently. You have probably seen some of it. It’s been all over the papers, which is fortunate for those with more space to fill now they can no longer rely on dubious methods to secure stories.

I myself was once the victim of press intrusion, but surprisingly have not been asked to give evidence to Leveson. Back in 2004 I spoke at an IT conference. At the time I was suffering with a rather painful and unfortunately-positioned cyst on my neck, meaning I couldn’t button my shirt and affix a tie. I made some off-the-collar comment about this in my opening remarks and thought no more about it.

Six months later I was informed that my cyst had been the subject of fervent press speculation. A reporter for Accountancy Age, who I had spoken to at the conference, mentioned it in his diary column. Quite why he thought his readers would be interested is beyond me. I can only deduce that he was responding to the predicament faced by many a writer with a fast-approaching deadline and space to fill in a light-hearted piece. One that, ironically, I have been able to turn to my advantage here, now I am a similar pickle.

When we talk about the press being corrupt and evil we don’t mean the trade press obviously (the editor has paid me to say that). I have distanced myself from the seedier end of the hack community with almost embarrassing defensiveness many times when asked, in a social setting, what I do for a living.

The conversation will usually proceed along the lines of something like: “I’m a journalist”. “Oh, who do you write for? Anyone I have heard of?” “No, probably not”, followed by some amusing comment from them of “I’ll have to be careful what I say in front of you”.

When there is a subject you have a more-than-passing knowledge of, it is interesting to see just how badly represented it can be by the mainstream media, often not intentionally but through laziness or ignorance.

People who do not understand the issues involved – and have no need to on a day-to-day basis – can quite easily make unverified comments, passing-off opinion as fact, without any accountability. That this happens is an opinion of mine that I am now passing-off as fact.

This relates particularly to charities and coverage of the ongoing brouhaha over the taxrelief cap. For instance, I read a line of thinking in a paper that should know better that it was quite right that the rich should be stopped from giving money to these so-called charities, as they will only waste it on high administration costs and salaries anyway.

Readers are then informed of a charity that seems to only have spent 1 per cent of its income on feeding starving children, information gleaned from a cursory glance at one year’s accounts.

There is no attempt to explore the reasons why that may have been, so an isolated example can end up affecting the reputation and good work done by other organisations by association.

Admin costs

The high-administration-cost argument is one that the charity sector has never been able to fully win within wider society. Perhaps charities need to employ people whose sole job is to present the facts about admin costs to the media – without paying them too much to do so of course.

Things are not helped when individual charities cite their own supposed lack of admin costs in comparison to others, which may be beneficial to their own fundraising but has a knock-on and detrimental effect on the credibility of the sector as a whole.

Charities are often very good at selling their cause to the press. But they need to remember that perceptions about how they operate can have an effect on everyone. The messages around costs are vital to the ongoing viability of the whole sector, and the ‘rich philanthropist and dodgy charity’ row perhaps provides an opportunity for us to present an honest and unified message.

Not that it is as easy as that. It can be impossible to control the spread of (mis)information, particularly in the internet age. Charity chief executives can’t all form horse-riding friendships with the editor of their local paper. And you can talk about certain topics until you are blue in the face, but if the media aren’t interested they won’t cover it.

But don’t take my word for it. I am only a journalist. And we’re the cysts on the neck of society. 

 

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Ian Allsop

Ian Allsop is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in not-for-profit management and financial issues.

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