Sweet Charity

Two stories involving charities caught my eye this week because both seemed to indicate a belief that the normal rules should not apply to charities. The first is a bit of a puzzler – naturally one might sympathise with the environmental campaign group Global Witness, who are mired in a court case over their use of personal data about BSG Resources employees. BSG are accused by Global Witness of skullduggery over mining rights in Africa. Faced with a choice between tree-huggers and mining plutocrats, my sympathies lie with Global Witness. The organisation received and refused subject access requests from some of BSG’s staff, and hope to use Data Protection’s Section 32 journalistic purposes exemption to rebuff the drillers. This sounds like a reasonable argument to me, and I hope they win.

But I don’t agree with the quoted sentiments of one of the organisation’s founders, Simon Taylor. “The case filed by BSGR officials is a threat to freedom of speech, as it risks stripping journalists and NGOs of vital safeguards aimed at protecting sources and reporting freely on matters of public interest.” Taylor’s fears are bolstered by a senior lawyer from Bates Wells Braithwaite, Mairead O’Reilly, who opined: “even if Global Witness succeeds in its defence, this case could encourage others to use the threat of data protection litigation to silence campaigners”. Something must be done!

The tone of the article suggests that somehow, this shouldn’t be happening in the first place, that Global Witness shouldn’t be facing this challenge. I couldn’t agree less. The proper handling of personal data should be a standard for everyone – the law shouldn’t treat charities or campaigners as special or give them opt-outs. Even if the BSG people have done wrong, they still have rights which should be respected unless Global Witness can establish a proper exemption. The campaigners should have been more savvy about the rules, rather than whinging about their application. The fact that O’Reilly is running a seminar in May entitled ‘Data Protection – threats to charities‘ suggests a slightly skewed perspective.

But as I say, I hope that Global Witness is successful in establishing that journalistic purposes does cover research for campaigning press releases. I think it would be in the public interest. On the other hand, I hope the comments of Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo (the ‘Charity Leaders Network’) and quoted on the same charity website, are rejected and condemned (although it seems that MoJ ministers are already cowed).

In response to some lukewarm sounding consultations on changes to FOI, Bubb is said to have written to the justice minister Simon Hughes MP, “urging him not to place undue and unfair burdens on charities with any reforms to Freedom of Information regulations”. This should not be a “slippery slope” to “further bureaucracy for charities and social enterprises”. As it happens, I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment on its own terms. Charities should not be subjected to undue and unfair burdens, and bureaucracy for its own sake should be resisted for all.

But Bubb’s euphemisms are translated at the outset: he fears that “charities delivering public services could be burdened by a new drive to broaden the scope of Freedom of Information requirements”.  In an ideal world, there would be a simple solution to Bubb’s complaints: don’t run public services. Hughes, on the other hand, has already confirmed that he has ‘no plans’ to bring charities under FOI’s scope. This doesn’t make Bubb’s remarks any less appalling. Anyone who sees FOI as a ‘burden’, as ‘bureaucracy’ is clearly afraid of accountability. The unique benefit of FOI is that people in a position of power over the public, who exercise decisions and spend public money have to account for themselves, have to answer the questions that the public want answers to. Journalists obviously do much fine work with FOI (and without it), but FOI removes all filters, all agendas apart from the ones individual taxpayers want to pursue.

A charity that receives public money to run public services should – like a private company – have to answer FOI requests directly. Charities and companies that deliver services to the public sector (people like me) should expect that questions will be asked and answered about the work that they do. FOI is not a burden. It is not ‘undue’ and ‘unfair’. FOI is – and should be recognised as – the price of admission to state power and state resources.

Where charities step in to fill the gaps left by a depleted public sector, funded by donations, or where they pursue their existing charitable aims, they should be properly regulated but apart from that, left to their own devices. But the fact of being a charity should not exempt an organisation that spends public money and makes decisions over the public from being accountable – directly, inconveniently and sometimes embarrassingly – to the self-same public.

The fact that Bubb is a – well remunerated – charity big cheese does not make him infallible. If a politician, council or NHS chief executive spoke of FOI in such disparaging terms, they would be roundly scorned. If charities running public services don’t want to answer FOI requests, my question is simple – what do they have to hide?

Comments

  1. I agree on both your points.

    I do think the BSGR/Global Witness litigation is of potentially profound importance for a number of reasons, not least, the extent of the s32 journalistic exemption. Most people would be happy for it to extend to a pressure group supporting our own beliefs, but what about a right-wing extremist campaigning organisation, who are compiling a database of their opponents’ addresses with a view to publishing it?

    I also think it’s an extremely highly charged piece of litigation, and O’Reilly’s comments need to be seen in this context – a lot of the pre-trial jousting is taking place in public (BSGR have, for instance, posted details of their claim on line). What she is effectively engaged in is advocacy for her client, so it is almost by definition a skewed perspective.

    • I agree. I have to admit that I would have found it difficult to be as supportive if it was an anti-abortion or anti-immigration campaigning group. The ‘journalistic’ element should be properly scrutinised, but if they succeed, it will be just as fair for climate deniers to use the same protections.

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