Saturday, 20 December 2014

Charity Commission and Oxfam

The Charity Commission have issued their long-awaited opinion on Oxfam. Two issues were investigated: Oxfam's work in Palestine, and their ‘Perfect Storm’ Twitter campaign about poverty in the UK.

On the first point, Oxfam were exonerated completely. On the latter, I think, things got silly. The Commission concluded that “the tweet could have affected the views of those who received it and could be misconstrued by some as party political campaigning”.

Clearly, charities must stick to the rules. The public trust and value charities as independent organisations. The Charity Commission issues clear guidelines - its document ‘CC9’. They say charities may campaign politically, so long as they are not party political. This can be demonstrated by good governance and a transparent approach to decision making. So far, so good.

But there’s a serious problem when regulators start trying to rein in Twitter. 140 characters isn’t usually enough to make your meaning totally clear, even if there’s a picture attached. Hostages to fortune are commonplace. You have only to look at Emily Thornberry MP’s recent fate to see what harm can result. 

In most such controversies on Twitter, much of the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It’s anachronistic and unworkable for a regulator to control every Tweet people make. We’ve been here before when the Electoral Commission suggested the Lobbying Act should apply to Twitter, earlier in the Autumn.

The Charity Commission’s comments on Oxfam simply won’t work on a practical level. It is all very well to argue, as they do, that Tweets need proper context. But let’s be realistic about what is possible in our world of instant messaging. Its impact is quick and charities are rightly seizing this new medium as a way to reach supporters, spread their messages and carry out campaigns - to ignore it would be to neglect their duty. Its nature means we can’t “ensure there is written authorisation and sign-off procedures”, as the Commission propose. Twitter is too quick and non-hierarchical for that to work.

So what lessons for the future? It’s increasingly clear that 20th-century regulation and 21st-century campaigning very often don’t match. The best campaigning is often provocative and derives its power from shocking people from their complacency. This drives social change, and draws attention to charities’ work for their beneficiaries. It would be irresponsible to try to smother it, under a new layer of bureaucracy. As ACEVO’s General Election Manifesto says, we need a ‘free society’ where social organisations are free to speak truth to power.

The General Election ‘long campaign' started yesterday and it’s a good time to debate the future of our ‘Free Society’. ACEVO’s Commission on Civil Society Regulation, chaired by lawyer Lord Low of Dalston, will consider how government can help secure charities’ and voluntary organisations’ place in the 21st century through good regulation. It’ll report in early March, and advise charities and government on a new generation of legal oversight.

But in the immediate future, let’s be robust in defending charities’ right to speak out. They have a duty to follow their mission. That may mean being ‘political’. They aren’t being ‘partisan’, even if politicians disagree with them and accuse them of taking sides.

I’m tempted to ask what the general public would rather see. On the one hand, a lively online democracy with charities campaigning to draw attention to neglected causes, bringing to bear the weight of their expertise and evidence-gathering. And on the other, a heavily-policed, hierarchically-controlled Twitter space, with all institutional voices too timid to speak their minds for fear of prosecution. We already have the former, and in my mind it works very well. Charities are an independent, non-party, political force, unafraid to speak the truth to power. Long may that last.

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