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Newsnight scandal threatens to derail journalism's bid for charity status

Newsnight scandal threatens to derail journalism's bid for charity status
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Newsnight scandal threatens to derail journalism's bid for charity status

Governance | Tania Mason | 16 Nov 2012

Next week’s planned launch event for a report that makes the case for investigative journalism to be accorded charitable status has been postponed in the wake of widespread condemnation of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s role in the Newsnight debacle.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism had teamed up with law firms Bates Wells and Braithwaite and the Wilkes Partnership to produce the report after the Bureau was refused charitable status by the Charity Commission, for the second time, earlier this year.

The Bureau is an independent, not-for-profit organisation based at London’s City University.

The Bureau, along with Wilkes and BWB, had prepared the report, which carries the title Good News?, as a submission to the Charity Commission in support of the argument that not-for-profit journalism deserves charitable status.  

A drinks reception had been planned to launch Good News? next Wednesday, and invitations were sent out signed by Iain Overton, the editor of the Bureau until his resignation this week.  The invitation said: “Journalism today is in crisis. Press scandals, failing economic models, rising costs and dwindling audiences are some of the major factors impacting public interest reporting in Britain.

“But there are things that can be done to protect this vital function of democracy. One is for journalism in the public interest to be accorded charitable status.”

Bureau inquiry into Newsnight role

But Overton was forced to step down as editor on Monday following the now-notorious BBC Newsnight programme which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in the Welsh child abuse scandal.  Overton had tweeted before the programme: “If all goes well we've got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.”

As James Lee, chair of trustees at the Bureau, announced Overton’s departure on its website, he added: “An inquiry to establish the role of the Bureau in the Newsnight story broadcast on November 2 is in urgent progress. An interim report will be issued as soon as possible.

“Trustees reaffirm the Bureau’s commitment to fact-based, non-sensational investigation in the public interest. Any role by the Bureau or its officers in this story was strictly contrary to the fundamental principles and standards of the Bureau.”

The BBC yesterday agreed to pay Lord McAlpine £185,000 and the peer's lawyers said he would be seeking damages from all those who used Twitter to spread the false accusation.

Last night, the Bureau emailed everyone who was invited to the report launch to say the reception has been postponed and will be rescheduled at a later date. The email, from Maeve McClenaghan, a journalist at the Bureau, did not give any explanation for the postponement but concluded: “Questions surrounding the future funding of journalism are pertinent now more than ever and we look forward to providing an open space for discussion and debate.”

A website mentioned on the invitation, journalismcharity.co.uk, contains just one page with the heading 'Good News? A site about the future of journalism and charitable status' but no other content.

Charity Commission: seminar will test the boundaries of charity law

The Commission’s reason for declining the Bureau’s applications for charitable status was that the promotion of investigative journalism is not a charitable purpose in itself. It said that if charitable funds were used to support investigative journalism, it would have to be to advance a charitable aim, such as advancing education.

But the Commission did accept that the issue should be explored more fully, and last month its chief executive Sam Younger said the regulator would be involved in running a seminar on the subject. When civilsociety.co.uk asked earlier this week whether the seminar would still go ahead in light of events at the Bureau, a spokeswoman for the Commission said it was never intended to be the Commission’s event, and would probably be organised by a university journalism department with input from the Commission as well as lawyers and sector representatives.

“The intention is for a very broad debate with many viewpoints represented,” she said. “The idea behind it is all part of recognising that there are always going to be issues that test the boundaries of charity law.

“It isn't going to be until March or April next year, so to what extent it would or wouldn’t pick up on this one particular organisation – it’s too early to say.”

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