The latest Times article is a weak story, says David Ainsworth, but it now represents part of a worrying trend.
I had the nerve-wracking experience of appearing on live radio for the first time today to talk about three attacks on charity newspapers over the last five days. This was provoked by the latest Times story, which accuses charities of putting too much pressure on relatives over their wills.
Today’s story is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Yesterday my colleague Kirsty Weakley rightly commended the same newspaper for obtaining genuine insight into the sector which, while uncomfortable, we can’t ignore. The guys who wrote yesterday’s front page are probably looking at today’s with a bit of a sour taste.
Let’s look at the facts, which aren’t in dispute.
- Charities are left money by people who, presumably, wanted them to have it. The charities have a legal duty to collect that money.
- Those charities should have been informed of the legacy by executors. They weren’t.
- The charities are forced to waste funds paying third parties to tell them about this money.
- This is apparently wrong.
It's tempting to just say "So what?"
There have obviously been one or two examples of really poor practice. Legacies are extraordinarily sensible things, after all, and grieving relatives are easy to offend. But essentially, charities are trying, as successfully as possible, to get their hands on their own money. And why shouldn’t they?
The story is as poor as can be. It has all the hallmarks of a weak story built up into something stronger to fit a particular agenda.
It reads, in all honesty, as if The Times had a story earmarked for the front page, had to pull it, and had this as a last-minute backup. It feels like there was a conversation around half past six last night in the news editor’s office:
“The political scandal story needs more work. We’ll have to hold it.”
“What else have we got? Can we stick Mourinho on the front?”
“We’re not the Metro.”
“Ballet teachers put girls’ health at risk?”
“We’re not the Guardian.”
“What about Merkel and Cameron and EU reform?
“Dull but worthy. Snoozing already.”
“What about the charity stuff from page 17?”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. People like having a go at charities, don’t they? What’s it about?”
“Something to do with legacies. It’s weak as watered-down piss, but we can stick a good headline on it – thinking ill of the dead or something. And no one will notice, they’ll all be pissed at the Christmas party by half twelve.”
“Yeah, that’ll do. Bung it out.”
At least, I hope that’s what happened. If The Times genuinely thinks that this is a charity scandal, we're in even more trouble.
The end of December, like August, is a silly season. There’s still some hard news about, as Parliament tries to finish the business of the year, but people are off work, buying papers and reading them in bed. They don’t want to know about the EU negotiations. They want slightly softer news, and charity scandals fit the bill.
This is a season where newspapers try to run investigations – off-diary stories and exclusive research – which suits their needs. Charities are likely to be in the spotlight.
The problem is now that charities are walking around with targets on their backs, and this presents a real existential threat to charities. The fact that journalists from this company have been asked onto the radio twice in a week to defend the sector is a clear indicator of the zeitgeist. (It’s also a bit worrying – where are the charities themselves?)
Now a lot of national newspaper journalists looking to make a name for themselves are Googling furiously, searching for data which can help them deliver a charity scandal. I think most sector journalists know of at least a couple they might yet dig up, to be honest. The papers are readying themselves to act as judge, jury and executioner. And while the public say they trust charities more than journalists, they actually don’t. People believe what they read in the papers.
One of two things might happen now.
First by the time the new year rolls around there could be some sort of genuine crisis which diverts everyone’s attention. The newspapers could lose interest. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Second, it could keep rolling, and if it does, there could be genuine damage. Stories like this have a way of gaining momentum. I remember reading a hundred stories about dangerous dogs, and hundreds more about the MMR jab. The jab story, in particular, was utter nonsense, in triplicate, peddled by frauds and fools. But it permanently damaged the health of the nation because with constant reinforcement, people eventually began to believe it.
Fair and unfair stories alike will build up and build up until something happens. Usually government intervenes and announces an official inquiry or new legislation which will be far enough in the future. Often these solutions are harmful and stupid.
People have a deep-seated trust in charities, and it will take a lot to genuinely move the needle. Without constant reinforcement, the public will gradually return to blind trust. Most people need a piece of new information repeated a huge number of times to genuinely change their mind.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that when people stop trusting you, you don’t know it’s happening. By the time it shows up in headline figures, it’s usually years after the damage is done.
If the investigation goes on long enough, and the pressure is sustained enough, something could happen. There could be a new paradigm.
I doubt it, if I’m honest. There’s too little genuine fire, and far too much smoke, and so it will probably blow over. But we can’t be completely sure.
The problem for me is the total lack of effective media response from charities. Telling the truth quietly, and only when asked, isn’t enough to win an argument. Ask your campaigns department if you don’t believe me.
So it might be an idea for the charity sector to think more effectively about how it might fight back.