Charitable advocacy threatened in the UK
20 January 2021 at 1:41 pm
New research shows nine in 10 campaigners believe that civil society is under threat, as Australian charities are warned to be wary of political attacks coming into the federal election
UK charities say they face an increasingly hostile political and media environment when it comes to campaigning, and fear their freedom to speak out is being curtailed.
A survey of 176 campaigners from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation uncovered almost unanimous agreement (98 per cent) that there was a need for more campaigning by civil society over the next 12 months.
But this need comes amid a change in attitudes towards charities from the political and media spheres.
Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of those surveyed said that politicians became more negative to campaigning last year (up from 45 per cent in 2019), while 49 per cent said the same for the media.
Overall, nine in 10 of those surveyed said they believed there were “threats, formal or informal, to the freedom to organise, speak out or protest”.
The major threats outlined by campaigners were conditions on funding that prevent
lobbying, campaigning or advocacy (77 per cent), negative views of politicians on civil society campaigning (77 per cent) and negative media coverage of civil society (72 per cent).
“A more hostile political environment has seen politicians shutting down channels of communication, and attacking campaigners and their allies as a threat to the common good,” the Sheila McKechnie Foundation said.
One respondent criticised “the awful way the [home secretary Priti Patel] has described lawyers who work with asylum seeking clients” – following Patel’s comments last year linking these lawyers with human traffickers.
Tory minister Jacob Rees-Mogg also faced criticism last month after accusing UNICEF of playing a “political stunt” by helping feed hungry children in the UK during the pandemic.
Sheila McKechnie Foundation CEO Sue Tibballs told The Guardian these kinds of comments were unhelpful.
“Civil society will keep working to defend rights and build a better world out of the pandemic. It’s time for politicians to work with us, even where we don’t always agree, not make us fodder in phoney culture wars,” Tibballs said.
Similar advocacy concerns remain in Australia
Australian civil society has faced its own share of advocacy concerns.
Pro Bono Australia’s Civil Voices report in 2017 found that charities felt pressured to take a cautious approach to advocacy, to protect against the threat of funding cuts and/or political retribution.
Almost 70 per cent of people surveyed for this report said they believed dissenting organisations risked having their funding cut.
That same year, a coalition of 25 major Australian charities formed the Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) alliance, speaking out against the federal government’s proposed foreign donations bill that imposed restrictions on the ability of charities to advocate.
HOOC spokesperson David Crosbie told Pro Bono News that there was a long history of governments seeking to restrict the voices of charities that may be critical of them.
He said thankfully, Australia currently enjoys some of the best legal protections for issue-based advocacy anywhere in the world through the Charities Act 2013.
“Australian charities have also not experienced the level of scandal and inappropriate actions being highlighted in the media as have many countries including the UK,” Crosbie said.
“[Over there] concerns about fundraising practices, sexual exploitation of vulnerable communities, and criticism of charity lawyers pursuing issues based actions have all coloured the public perception of charities.”
But he said Australian charities should be wary of future political attacks on their activities.
“As we begin the lead in to the next federal election, we can expect some politicians to try to discredit any charities expressing views counter to government policies and practices,” he said.
“Australian charities should not fear such attacks provided they have done the policy work and continue to positively engage with the communities they serve.”