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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 Rogare’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 ethics, 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 ethics, 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.

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).

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