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‘Don’t shoot the messenger’: media ethics and the fundraising crisis

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’: media ethics and the fundraising crisis

Channelling the ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ school of journalistic apologism (in which he’s far from alone in the charity sector), Giles Pegram asked in a blog on 101Fundraising last month why we would expect the media to be fair, balanced and impartial in how they report fundraising. He added that the Daily Mail “had been right” to publish the stories that it did during the fundraising crisis last year, since they reflected underlying donor anger.

Pegram also used a couple of quotes that I posted on the Fundraising Chat Facebook group, in which I claimed the Daily Mail was ideologically anti-fundraising (don’t worry Giles, I have no problem you using those quotes – they were meant for public consumption).

Anti-fundraising ideology

And I stand by those claims. Some sections of the media are so blatantly ideological in their opposition to fundraising that the question is not ‘is there an anti-fundraising ideology at work in the media?’ but, ‘what is the precise form of the media’s anti-fundraising ideology?’. This is something that I’ve blogged about (on ’s Critical Fundraising blog) and presented on (at IoF Scotland this year and I shall again at AFP I-Con in San Francisco next May).

I hummed and hahed about whether to respond to Pegram’s blog, but never got round to it. However, I’ve just read Toby Bourke’s 101Fundraising blog about his agency’s experiences at the hands of the Irish media. In response to the question of whether some sections of the media are ideologically anti-fundraising, I present Bourke’s blog as Exhibit A.

As Exhibit B, I present this week’s story from the Daily Mail championing the crusade against wealth screening and the way it describes those who do this as “vultures”, and perfectly respectable wealth screening firms as “unscrupulous”.

But I’m not writing this as a member of the fundraising community. I’m writing as someone who spent 27 years working and studying in the media, on both sides of the journalism/PR divide, 18 of those years as a professional journalist (I’m still a member of the National Union of Journalists).

What does it say about how we view our pluralistic, democratic society, that one of our thought leaders can write that our profession can’t expect to be treated fairly and impartially by the media?

Being fair, balanced and impartial is the first rule of journalism (actually, it’s the second rule). Journalists are, after all, the so-called ‘Fourth Estate’ of government, keeping checks and balances on the other three estates (executive, legislature and judiciary). Ironic though that while the Fourth Estate keep checks on everyone else, it won’t submit its own activities to a similar level of scrutiny. This effectively gives it free reign to say and write whatever it likes, which can always be justified as being in the ‘public interest’.

 

If the media cannot be trusted to act fairly and impartially, what hope does that give us?

Pegram says in his blog that fundraisers should examine their practices so they can defend them to a Daily Mail journalist. Yet he’s acknowledged this journalist is unlikely to listen to your justification in an impartial and balanced manner.

The only justification that can be offered – assuming you want that justification accepted – is one that the journalist is already prepared to accept. That’s a recipe for changing your professional practice so it is acceptable to the media, even if you know that is not the right thing to do.

Ian MacQuillin quotation

I was recently speaking to a trustee of a small-medium charity who told me that they use just such a ‘Daily Mail yardstick’ to assess whether their fundraising can be justified. She then told me that they’d made a big investment in fundraising that hadn’t seen any income come in for the first 18 months. I asked her how she would have justified such a negative RoI to the Daily Mail.

Pegram implies he doesn’t believe some in the media have an ideological bent against fundraising, or are conspiring against it, yet in the same breath says we can’t expect them not to be biased and unbalanced in their treatment of fundraising. That’s almost a definition of ‘ideological’.

It is simply not possible to justify your activities to someone who has already decided, from a biased and unbalanced ideological perspective, that your activities are unjustifiable.

We all know that the fundraising crisis that enveloped British fundraising last year – the chaotic and shambolic fallout from which is still raining down on us – stemmed from the death of Olive Cooke. But, as her family attested, it was not caused by the fundraisers, while the coroner did not attribute fundraising as a cause.

But the media storm that accused fundraisers of ‘killing’ her (‘hounded’ to her death by charities, remember) was a major contributory factor in that crisis happening when it did. Irrespective of any fundraising practice that might have been dubious, exploitative, or unethical, if the media had not reported the Olive Cooke story the way they had, this would not have happened when and how it did.

Journalists did not check facts, nor try to find the facts, while omitting relevant information and putting the worst kind of ideological spin on many of the stories they did run.

 

The ethical dilemma: unethical journalism or unethical fundraising?

From the perspective of journalism , it’s no defence, in this particular case, to say that unethical practice by journalists (because it was unethical) was justified because of the truth it uncovered, because the media could have uncovered the same truth while behaving ethically and with professional propriety. Pegram says the fact that the stories about Olive Cooke were untrue is reassuring, but “not relevant”. From the perspective of journalism , that comment makes me shudder slightly.

And if you do think that the media are justified in conducting unethical practice in order to unmask a greater evil perpetrated by fundraisers, then I guess that in resolving this ethical dilemma, we need to give weight to the possible consequences of those two unethical practices.

Personally, I think society is at greater risk from an unregulated, self-serving media than it is from charity direct fundraisers who can’t work out between them how to solve a potential tragedy of the commons or who profile their donors to find out how much they should ask them for.

As I said, I was a journalist for 18 years and, I think, a pretty good and ethical one. I am writing this blog not as a defence of fundraising from the media, but as a criticism of ethical standards of journalism as they have been applied in the fundraising crisis – I would have been ashamed to put my byline on some of the stories about fundraising that have appeared over the past 18 months – and how some in the charity sector appear to think we should take such poor ethical practice on the chin (or deny that it is even happening).

We shouldn’t. Because no-one should. The media are, or should be, as accountable for their ethical standards as everyone else is, and should be held to account when they breach them. Even if the messenger doesn’t need shooting, there are times when he needs a good talking to.

 

Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

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Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).
  • Toby Bourke

    Good article. To say that the Daily Mail is simply reflecting public anger on fundraising is like saying they simply reflect public anger on immigration. They are the architects of that anger with their scandalous misrepresentation of the facts and their endless scape goating. . The fundraising business I ran was ‘Daily Mailed’ and you can read the account here http://101fundraising.org/2016/12/backs-wall-back-future/

  • Ian MacQuillin
  • Hi Ian,
    You have quoted me accurately and in context. Thank you. Though I think there’s not much between us, we may have a different view of media ethics in that you seem to think there’s a definite agenda against fundraising, I feel the story that the Press think has most mileage is one that’s anti-fundraising and some of the tabloids are only too willing not to let truth and accuracy cloud that simple story.

    However, like you, I was very disappointed with the recent Daily Mail piece.

    But taking your argument in a slightly different direction, have you read the Information Commissioner’s comments?

    “The millions of people who give their time and money to benefit good causes will be saddened to learn that their generosity wasn’t enough. And they will be upset to discover that charities abused their trust to target them for even more money.”
    “This widespread disregard for people’s privacy will be a concern to donors, but so will the thought that the contributions people have made to good causes could now be used to pay a regulator’s fine for their charity’s misuse of personal information.”

    Whatever the rights or wrongs of her judgments, (and of course she is right to put donors’ interests first), I wondered whether this value-laden wording was appropriate from a regulator? The Institute of Fundraising clearly also had doubts. Dan Fluskey writes:
    “’Exploiting’ supporters. Seems a pretty (mis)leading and a value-judgment. ICO should be looking at legal basis, not political point scoring.”…“Pretty strong stuff. It is disappointing that an independent and serious regulator seemed to be trying to write the tabloid headlines for them.”

    The Institute is of course in touch with the Information Commissioner, and we must wish Peter Lewis well.

    But it is clearly not only the media we have to convince that we are putting our house in order. Best, Giles

    • Ian MacQuillin

      My view on media ethics is that journalists should be honest, objective and attempt to tell the truth and not to pursue personal or corporate agenda. So what I hear you saying is that their anti-fundraising agenda is a purely commercial one that’s based on getting more readers but the journalists don’t subscribe to those anti-fundraising attitudes themselves. However, underlying this is why do anti-fundraising stories sell? Because people don’t like high overheads, or street fundraisers, or shock advertising, and so on and so on. But why don’t they like these things? Probably because they hold to an ideology about how fundraising ought to be done – http://bit.ly/1T3SgKT

      As the press are also members of the public, it highly likely that some of them subscribe to the same ideology. So of course some of them are going to reflect their own ideological standpoint in the stories they right and the anti-fundraising agenda in some of the media is not solely due to reflecting public anger because they will sell generate more revenue, it’s because many of the journalists are similarly angry.

      From a media ethics perspective, this is not about saying journalists should never have their own opinions or attitudes, and it’s not an unrealistic call for ‘pure objectivity’. However, there comes a point when journalists own attitudes are driving the agenda and subverting the truth fairness they are professionally duty-bound to deliver.

      I blogged about the ICO wealth screening stuff on Critical Fundraising and made similar comments as Dan did re ICO’s languate – http://bit.ly/2hhMpEw

      This blog was, I think, misunderstood by the data protection community who saw it not only as a justification of noncompliant DP practice but as advocacy to keep on doing it. Whereas it was actually was a criticism of ICO’s approach to regulating charities, specifically asking if they were operating a double standard that would see them take enforcement action against charities for activity they would not enforce against companies.

      When you say it’s not just the media we have to convince that we are putting our house in order – i.e. it’s ICO as well – well that’d e very easy to do: don’t do wealth screening (and certainly not all that list swapping and telematching stuff) without consent.

      However, there is a question of whether they (media and regulators) need to show us that they have their houses in order. Trust is a two way street. Not only do we need to ensure that media and regulators trust fundraisers; fundraisers need to trust the media and regulators. Can fundraisers trust the Daily Mail. Of course they can’t. And why can’t they? Because there is an agenda they are working to. That agenda is anti-fundraising. And it is probably driven by ideological concerns.

      Do we trust that ICO is regulating charities impartially?

      I’ve twice asked ICO if they have different standards for charities and companies. It’s a fairly straightforward question to which the answer is either a) Yes we do, or b) No we don’t, but I’ve not had a straightforward answer. If the answer is a) then the question we should ask is why they require different (stricter) standards from charities. And part of the answer to that question might be that they have ideological drivers along the lines that ‘charities OUGHT to have higher standards than companies, because the public would expect that’ – the ICO adjudications strongly imply that to be the case.

  • Hi Ian,

    I’m not going to engage with all your points.

    I love your reference to Schrödinger and his cats, which as a logic major I am very familiar with, but I didn’t know was publicly known. (It’s worth googling).

    You ask one question, which for me, is absolutely key. Are there, in law, different standards for charities and companies? The answer must be ‘no’, and no regulator should say otherwise. If we, the fundraising profession, believe we will give donors a better experience by treating them differently than a company would, and so raise more money in the longer term, that is for us, not the law, or any regulator.

    Best, Giles

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