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Public Interest Journalism Working Group minutes: 16 June 2021

Published: 19 Jul 2021
Date of meeting: 16 Jun 2021

Minutes from the group's meeting on 16 June 2021.

Published:
19 Jul 2021
Public Interest Journalism Working Group minutes: 16 June 2021

Attendees and apologies

  • Stuart Birkett, Highland News and Media (SB)
  • Rhiannon Davies, Greater Govanhill (RD)
  • India Divers, Scottish Government (ID) (Secretariat)
  • Rob Edwards, The Ferret (RE)
  • Rachel Hamada, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (RH)
  • Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director, Public Interest News Foundation (JH)
  • John McLellan, Scottish Newspaper Society (JMcL)
  • Joyce McMillan, independent journalist (JMcM)
  • Emma Meese, Independent Community News Network (EM)
  • Hazel Parkinson, Scottish Government (HP) (Chair)
  • Allan Rennie, University of Stirling (AR)
  • Frances Rafferty, NUJ (FR)
  • Hans Marter, Shetland News (HM)
  • Nick McGowan Lowe, NUJ (NML)
  • Ally Tibbitt, The Ferret (AT)

Items and actions

Welcome

The meeting was chaired by HP as SCK was on leave. The list of attendees is available in Annex A.

Apologies were noted from RB, DW and JT. Nick McGowan Lowe (NML) attended in the place of JT.

Ally Tibbitt (AT) from The Ferret joined the meeting as a guest speaker to talk to the group about charitable status for public interest news publishers.

Action: officials to update and circulate the draft recommendation with the group.

Action: officials to circulate the minutes from the last meeting on 9 June with the group.

Charitable status

AT presented a PowerPoint on charitable journalism. He noted the difference between a charitable news organisation and public interest news as a charitable purpose. In Scotland, an organisation can only become a charity if it has a charitable purpose and is for public benefit. AT pointed out that public interest news does not fit comfortably into a charitable purpose but could fit into “the advancement of the arts, heritage, culture and science” or “the advancement of citizenship or community development.”

There are pros and cons to a public interest news publisher becoming a charitable news organisation. The pros include that the organisation can claim gift aid and get grants. The cons are it poses limitations on political campaigning and means the publisher cannot endorse a particular way of voting. It would also prohibit the publisher from providing exclusive benefits for supporters so it could not use paywalls. It was noted that charitable status might work for a publisher if it is mainly grant funded, is open access and non-political.

In England public interest news publishers can be recognised as charitable organisations but in Scotland it is difficult to set up a news organisation as a charity. A law change would be necessary to facilitate public interest news publishers apply for charitable status.

A recommendation could be to ask Scottish Government to pass a stature to recognise public interest news as a charitable purpose. If this was recommended, it would be necessary to define what is public interest news.

It was noted that the potential criteria for a publisher gaining charitable status, such as producing journalism not solely for entertainment value or political purpose, may limit journalistic content. Some concerns were raised that this may limit freedom of speech and restrict the landscape of diversity of public interest journalism.

JH shared a matrix with the group to illustrate the impact of charity law. The matrix is in Annex B.

It was raised that the public want charities to be non-political so there was a risk of eroding the public’s trust in charities if publishers gained charitable status. This was countered with the idea that a new category of charitable news organisations could emerge with a distinct regulatory framework that separates it from other kinds of charities.

It was noted that it was important to maintain flexibility for publishers to allow them to access multiple funding organisations. It was suggested a potential foundation could have charitable status. This could allow the foundation to provide grants to public interest news organisations which don’t have charitable status as long as the activity it was funding was line with its charitable purpose.

The point was made that the recommendation of changing the rules around charitable status should not be dismissed because it does not suit all publishers as it may still be worthwhile to some publishers, especially grassroots one. It was noted that publishers would not have to apply for charitable status but changing the law would allow some publishers to apply if they wanted to.

Some concern was raised that charitable status for public interest news publishers poses the risk of the charity commission acting like an editorial regulator. It was important to make sure that charitable giving was not used as a means to distort the commercial market.

Action: group to decide if they would like another meeting to discuss charitable status. To be co-ordinated by Officials correspondence.

Action: group to decide if they would like another meeting to discuss Agenda Item 3: community-led journalism as there was not time to discuss it in the meeting. To be co-ordinated by Officials correspondence.

Journalism foundation

It was noted that the idea of a journalism foundation had recurred throughout previous discussions.

There was a lot of scope for a potential journalism foundation but it was important for the foundation to have a remit that was manageable.

Potential functions of the proposed foundation could include grant-giving, monitoring advising in areas such as government advertising spend and playing a role in monitoring changing in the Scottish media landscape. The foundation could also act as a hub for lively debate, signpost resources and commission research.

The group agreed that a mixed funding model would work best for the foundation. It could potentially be funding through a combination of commercial and charitable funding, matched by a measure of support from the Scottish Government. The question of how to fundraise initial start-up costs was raised and it was noted there were downsides to Scottish Government involvement. It was suggested that the group could ask the Scottish Government for match funding, meaning that they would have to demonstrate financial support for the foundation from other sources first. The group felt it was worthwhile for them to make the case to the Scottish Government that funding community and local news helps with democratic deficit.

The group felt that in terms of governance, it was essential the foundation was independent, credible, transparent and representative of the diverse media landscape. It was raised that the foundation could have a hybrid model meaning that it would largely have the characteristics of an independent model but with some characteristics of a public body.

The group discussed the potential scale of a possible foundation. This would help inform how much money would be needed to set it up and run it. It would also help inform how much the group would ask the Scottish Government to contribute. The group felt that the foundation should become sustainable in its own right and eventually not rely on government funding but that to begin with, some investment from the Scottish Government may be needed. It was noted that the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA) had asked for £1 million so that may help inform the groups decision. The group agreed that they may need to ask for more than this if the foundation is to have a grant giving role.

Action: EM to find out how the IWA came to the figure of £1 million and share with the group.

Action: group to consider setting out how much the foundation would need for year 1 and year 2 and where the money would come from when developing their recommendations.

It was suggested that a foundation could be a means to encourage big tech to donate philanthropic funding as it would support a large number of smaller organisations. A recommendation could be for the Scottish Government to suggest to big tech that it would be good for their profile to donate money to the foundation.

The point was raised that it was important to emphasise the importance of the foundation in creating an infrastructure to sustain the public interest journalism sector and move it forward. The group agreed that it was important to pitch to the Scottish Government that funding a good infrastructure would mean that the foundation or the sector would not need long-term government funding.

The group agreed that Ministerial buy in to the foundation was important.

Summary of actions

  • officials to update and circulate the draft recommendation with the group
  • officials to circulate the minutes from the last meeting on 9 June with the group
  • group to decide if they would like another meeting to discuss charitable status. To be co-ordinated by Officials correspondence
  • group to decide if they would like another meeting to discuss Agenda Item 3: community-led journalism as there was not time to discuss it in the meeting. To be co-ordinated by Officials correspondence
  • EM to find out how the IWA came to the figure of £1 million and share with the group
  • group to consider setting out how much the foundation would need for year 1 and year 2 and where the money would come from when developing their recommendations

Annex B: charitable journalism matrix

 

Journalism doesn’t change

Journalism changes

Charity law doesn’t change

Narrow definition of public interest news that advances citizenship and community development and is politically impartial (PINF) = very few journalism charities

News orgs change to fit this definition = more journalism charities, but less political journalism

Charity law changes

Broad definition of public interest news that may be politically partisan = lots of journalism charities but erosion of public trust in charities?

A new category of charitable news organisation, with a distinct regulatory framework = lots of journalism ‘charities’, that sit apart from other charities