“Alternative facts”, “post truth” and “fake news”are hardly new phenomena, but are disturbingly prominent.
They have burgeoned alongside manipulation of both mainstream and social media by powerful interests (including foreign countries), and by people with strong ideologies and agendas who reinforce each other’s prejudices or build “movements” in echo chambers without reference to more balanced intermediaries or different viewpoints. The results coarsen public dialogue, substitute simplistic slogans for reasoned debate, and reinforce division and mutual incomprehension between different sections of society. These have been evident in the debate about Brexit, the triumph of Donald Trump in the USA, and the awful trolling of (among others) many women in public life, of Muslims, Jews, black people, immigrants, or Labour party sympathisers who do not rate Jeremy Corbyn. It would be wrong to be apocalyptic and ignore some countervailing, beneficial aspects of social media and political life, but the downgrading of honesty, tolerance and rationality in public and political discourse is ominous for civilised values.
What does this mean for charities and their allies?
Many charities are part of the infrastructure of fact-checking and truth telling in our public life. We need these charities more than ever, holding out and fighting back against post truth degradation of public discourse.
What, for example, would we do without the Institute of Fiscal Studies to provide an impartial, independent assessment of the Budget and other financial pronouncements, free of political spin? The IFS also has broader non-partisan expertise in fields such as health, education and policing. What would we do without the King’s Fund’s independent assessments of the true state of the NHS and social care and how improvements might be made – often in cooperation with other influential charities such as The Health Foundation or the Nuffield Trust? These and other key charitable think tanks offer crucial correctives to party political debate and media sloganising over facts and policy. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a wonderful funder and sharer of authoritative, independent research in the fields of poverty and housing, though in this case with explicit aims to influence policy in particular directions such as alleviating poverty and providing a mix of housing that includes all levels of society. Similarly, some of the most reliable and respected research and information on environmental challenges and policy options comes from charitable think tanks such as The Green Alliance, the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Institute for European Environmental Policy, as well of course as university research departments (also charities).
The charity Full Fact exists solely to assess objectively the facts in topical areas subject to contested claims, and encourage and equip others to do the same. Currently, these include immigration and migration, the extent of problems in the NHS, and claims about the impact of Brexit. They will not wittingly take sides and go to great lengths to authenticate their non partisan credentials. Like many other charitable think tanks, they punch above their weight as measured by their size and resources. Crucially, they are completely transparent about their sources of funding, so perceptions of their objectivity are not contaminated by speculation as to who is paying the piper. Of course, some of those whose statements are called out do not accept that Full Fact is impartial, and no judgement on topic selection or conclusion is without some implicit value base, but their scrupulous efforts at relative objectivity, rationality and care are an important gift, and championed in their partnerships with other independent-minded bodies in the charity and state sectors. If you don’t know them, have a look at their website.
The Royal Society promotes excellence and honesty in science and scientific method. The Royal Statistical Society is a charity working to safeguard the integrity and robustness of statistics as a public good, interacting with official bodies like the Office of National Statistics. Universities and some kinds of schools (including academies and free schools), which are charities, must in charity law advance education and research in a way that does not propagate a controversial predetermined viewpoint. It is rightly a matter of scandal if the independence and integrity of university research appears to be compromised by accepting the funding of research by vested interests. By contrast, a body such as the Migration Observatory, charitably funded and part of Oxford University, has developed a reputation for independence and balance in a fiecely contested subject area and is a close partner of Full Fact.
The Education Endowment Foundation is a grant making charity aiming to build up and share evidence of what works best in assisting poorer sectors of society to achieve high educational standards, with a very strong emphasis on rigorous, independent evaluation of projects, rather than a predetermined political or ideological view. The Sutton Trust, which was a founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, is itself a highly respected source of research and analysis of inequalities in education. NatCen Social Research, another charity, is a leading centre of independent social research and produces the very high quality annual British Social Attitudes Survey, providing a solid evidence base for public debate and understanding. The Consumers’ Association ensures that a great deal of independent, carefully researched comparative information is made accessible to consumers.
Similarly, museums, which are usually charities, are expected to educate and enrich understanding without partisan bias.A good deal of the legal principles and jurisprudence that underpin the truth seeking and fairness of the legal system are taught in charities such as university law faculties and charitable law schools. Charities like the General Medical Council, and many of the Royal Colleges in the health sphere, exist partly to uphold the reputation of their professions for truth, honesty and transparent dealing in the public interest. And anyone who has had a brush with cancer or other medical conditions or disabilities will know that you can expect to look to specialist charities, as well as to your doctors, for some of the best, balanced description of the dangers, the chances of healing, the pros and cons of different treatment and management options, disentangled from popular fears or myth-making.
Some ombudsmen are charities. I am a Board member of the one for student complaints in the higher education sector (The Office of the Adjudicator for Higher Education) so that HE institutions and students know that complaints which they cannot settle between them can come to an impartial fact-finding body for genuinely independent adjudication.
Many of us still regard the BBC as a bastion of relatively independent, truthful broadcasting by comparison with many newspapers and commercial media that are driving the agendas of their owners and editors or powerful vested interests. The BBC Trust is set up by royal charter but resembles a charity in its name and its commitment to independence and public benefit. Thus, the career of Niall Dickson as distinguished health correspondent of the BBC, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund and now Chief Executive of the General Medical Council is an interesting journey through the infrastructure of truth-seeking, relatively unbiased analysis and fact checking in British life.
The NCVO is very good at fact-checking the various editorials and reports in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph or The Times about alleged charity shortcomings – not paying them back in their own currency, but in a calm, rational tone. I admire the way in which Karl Wilding of the NCVO courteously responds to wild tweets criticising the NCVO’s positions (for instance, aspects of Sir Stuart Etherington’s Fundraising Review): he ignores their polemical style and engages them with careful facts and in reasoned debate, aiming for better understanding rather than winning on points.Sir Stuart Etherington is highly effective at winning round hostile audiences in the same reasoned style, deploying real experience against distortions and myths.
In an era of post truth, therefore, we need to notice – and value as never before – the hugely important part that many charities play, very incompletely sketched here, as part of the infrastructure of truth, objectivity and respect for facts in our common life.
There are of course many other important bodies with such aims set up by statute, royal charter or other non charitable auspices, and all the charities named above work closely with non charitable organisations sharing a common commitment to reliable facts, robust evidence, fairness and rational argument. But there is no doubting the weight of the charitable contribution as part of the mix. This stems from the essential nature of charities, which is that they are legally independent and, subject as they are to charity law, beholden to no private, commercial or state interest nor to any party political purpose. That is why such charities have so much to offer to our shared democratic life when there are so many pressures towards post-truth simplifications and divisive partisanship.
This gives rise to a number of searching questions that I feel should be receiving more attention (and which I hope to deal with in future blogs):
– what more could charitable Foundations and other sector bodies be doing to support and encourage this aspect of charitable activity?
– what are the implications for charities that have a different job to do, wanting to promote a particular cause, needing simple and striking messaging for fundraising and communications purposes? Do they sometimes become part of the problem rather than part of the solution?
– what about the small minority of charitable think tanks that are not transparent about their funding and can be seen as promoting pre-determined and controversial viewpoints in defiance of Charity Commission guidance?
– is the framented nature of regulation of these charities by different bodies (Charity Commission and sundry other Government Departments) fit for purpose in the context of upholding civilised values in the post truth era? Does it matter that many people in public life, let alone members of the public, do not even know that some of the bodies I have mentioned are charities at all?
All these are important questions for attention. The starting point is to own and appreciate the very important role that many charities already play in holding the line against half truths, slogans and falsehoods. It is time to encourage more purposeful thinking and discussion, witin the sector and beyond, about how it is to be supported and enlarged.