Status politics: could local newspapers be allowed to become charities?

Report by Tim Dawson

With a UK Communications Bill White Paper expected in early 2013, there is a growing hope that one of its provisions might be to make it easier for local newspapers to operate as charities.  A consortium of charities and trusts has already made a submission to this effect to the Department for Culture Media and Sport to this effect.

The Charities Act of 2006 requires that, to obtain the benefits of charitable status, an organisation must comply with one of charitable purposes mentioned in the Act, none of which provide an obvious way in which a publisher might comply.  Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of Wikipedia did obtain charitable status in 2011, after a long and complex negotiation with the Charity Commissioners, which it likened itself to the nineteenth century reading rooms that provided a ‘public resource’.  Derived from a statute of 1601, however, this route is thought to be off-puttingly complex for more mainstream publications.

It is not hard, however, to find evidence of the benefit to communities that newspapers can provide when they are produced by charities.  In Northumberland, for example, the Ambler is a bi-monthly newspaper, produced for the former mining village of Amble, by the Amble Development Trust.

Edited by Anna Williams, who is employed by the Trust, the paper is largely produced by volunteers and is distributed free to Ambles 6,500 residents.  An allied website is updated daily.

‘Our mission is to promote community cohesion’, says Williams.  ‘We were fortunate that, from the beginning, people took the paper to their heart and thought of it as their own.  And we are lucky to be in a village that is small enough for people to know who you are talking about but big enough for there to be something going on’.

The Development Trust obtains its funding from a range of statutory and other agencies often having to trim what it does to fit with the funding available.  The Trust provides the paper with a comfortable home and the computers that are required for production.  Williams’ salary is also met by the Trust – for whom she undertakes other work as well as editing the paper.

Under the current legislation there is nothing to stop other community charities from establishing newspapers, as they have in Amble.  For a charity to take over an existing newspaper, or for a charity to be established whose main purpose was to publish a newspaper, however, would almost certainly require a change in the law.  The main benefits that charitable status provides is that it provides access to some funding streams.  Slightly more nebulously, it could also provide newspapers with a badge to demonstrate their community worth.

Given the tumult of the Leveson enquiry and the potentially far-reaching consequences of the Hargreaves Review, it remains to be seen whether such a measure appears to be sufficiently attractive to the Government for it to appear in a Bill.

 

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