The Charity Commission’s decision to admit Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) to the register of charities comes at a point when public confidence in the fourth estate (even the historically hallowed BBC) is at a particularly low ebb.
To register as a charity, PINF had to prove that it has exclusively charitable aims or "purposes", which are for the benefit of the public at large. Interestingly, journalism is not and never has been one of the purposes specifically accepted as charitable either by the courts or by parliament - despite much discussion about the fundamental importance of a free press. However, this is an evolving area, which future consolidation of the law may very well take into account, notwithstanding that the current government rejected the Cairncross Review’s recommendation that journalism should be recognised as a new charitable purpose on the grounds that it was unnecessary to do so.
PINF succeeded by showing that its activities qualified as charitable as fulfilling the advancement of education on the one hand and the advancement of citizenship and civic responsibility on the other. This is a significant step forward for prospective journalistic charities.
This was in fact PINF’s second bite at the cherry, as it had originally given itself the goal of promoting "active citizenship" and encouraging and facilitating "engagement" in communities. However, these two seemingly innocuous phrases could potentially have "malign" secondary meanings of social disruption, the Charity Commission noted quoting the judgment of the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) some years before on the application for registration of Full Fact (the independent fact checking charity). In addition to clarifying these statements, PINF had also had to agree that public interest news does not encompass "showbiz" and cannot take sides, an inevitable consequence of privately owned media (as most are), and the intent behind that change is obvious.
Alongside its first two purposes, PINF’s third purpose was analogous to those of Independent Press Regulation Trust (IPRT) registered in 2015. IPRT had itself only succeeded after the FTT had held that IPRT’s purpose of promotion of high standards in journalism was akin to the promotion of the ethical and moral improvement of the community.
On that basis, it might have been assumed that the "benefit" requirement would have been easily satisfied, but the Charity Commission nevertheless pointed to the findings of a House of Lords select committee inquiry into the future of journalism and of the Cairncross Review, which had previously commented that journalism was crucial in the "preservation of an accountable democracy". That this should need stating underscores the double edged sword that is an unbridled press - one of the problems that PINF was set up to address and probably the reason why journalism is not currently a charitable purpose.
Finally, PINF met the "public" requirement by asserting that it would support other charities and not-for-profits operating in the sector and publish material on its website. It was also not anticipated to provide any more than incidental benefit to any specific individuals, which would be an issue for a lot of media groups, if they chose to apply for charitable status, because they espouse particular philosophies that further the agendas of their owners.
Whether this decision entails changes in ownership structures for news organisations (as has been suggested is a possibility) will be fascinating to see, but, if it contributes to journalism of the civic value seen in "All the President’s Men" or "Spotlight" (as seems more likely), it is entirely to be welcomed. If it does, surely a new charitable purpose will at last in fact be born.