Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
The Free Speech Network of Editors and Publishers states that “the press exists to scrutinise those in positions of power”. It is certainly doing its job at the moment, and not just on Brexit.
Frankly, the public was pretty shocked by a range of alleged scandals in recent years, from MPs’ expenses and potential sexual abuse, to Kids Company, Weinstein, Carillion and BHS, BBC salaries, – as well as Jimmy Saville and recent paedophile convictions.
But revelations of abuse by officials at Oxfam, one of our greatest charities, are a tribute to our invaluable free press, and the quality of its investigative journalism, which some people wish to emasculate. Should this ever be allowed to happen, we would all be worse off, because fresh revelations almost daily indicate that the issues uncovered so far are merely the tip of the iceberg, not confined to a single charity. The Salvation Army has now admitted sacking four members of staff for “sexual misconduct”, whilst Save The Children is investigating some complaints.
Oxfam’s failures in particular could result in potentially global repercussions across the charity sector, including the UN, with governments threatening to withdraw funding. Although Oxfam’s Deputy Chief Executive resigned, we were not told of the terms of her resignation; does she get a big pay-off, which is commonplace for senior people across charities, and parts of the public sector? Despite assurances that ‘lessons will be learnt’, comments by the Chief Executive have been far from helpful in restoring confidence.
Allegations of improper conduct, and misuse of funds at Oxfam, are alienating anyone who has dropped a few pounds into a collection tin, volunteers in their shops, or been moved to donate in the wake of terrible events, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, war and epidemics. The revelations are also infuriating business sponsors, big name ‘ambassadors’ and all committed charity workers, both at home and in disaster zones, who devote their lives to helping others.
In the meantime, recent events serve as a reminder that close scrutiny is at the heart of good governance and it is encouraging to see how the cross-party Parliamentary Select Committees are grasping the nettle, with chairs working together to address complex issues. Their detailed questioning of Ministers and officials across Government and public sector bodies, as well as key private sector bosses from banks to retailers is invaluable in throwing light on business practices, and reviewing state expenditure, which doesn’t always equate to value for money. Their reports are thorough, with valuable recommendations on difficult topics which may otherwise escape examination. This energy is now being directed at the charity sector, with interesting results, not least a series of grovelling apologies.
Unfortunately, local authority Scrutiny Committees don’t have the same detailed focus and enthusiasm, and so are largely ineffective, with membership overwhelmed by the governing party; serious challenge can only be delivered when undertaken by people without a personal interest. It should never be a box-ticking exercise.
At the very least, chairs should be independent (either a councillor from a neighbouring council, or a business person without any direct or indirect connection to the council), and able to call on witnesses with specific experience of each topic for investigation. As more councils combine their management, it would be hugely beneficial if they also had regional scrutiny committees (including oversight of small local charities), with representatives from each council. This approach would be more cost-effective and efficient, with the real potential for lessons to be learnt.
Local newspapers, now sadly in decline, used to scrutinise as community champions, challenging local authority decisions, making them essential reading. They should restore this focus, especially when council tax is about to rise significantly and councillors need to be held to account for their spending. This means senior councillors being put to the test in rigorous interviews, rather than leaving officers struggling to justify their own recommendations implemented by councillors.
So, as we await more revelations, we should thank our independent press for its role in holding people to account. Press freedom is part of our freedom, and should never be curtailed, yet an amendment to the Data Protection Act before Parliament would force the press to join a regulator in which no national newspaper has confidence, with the threat of punitive financial penalties for non-compliance.
The Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics of the British press” following the phone-hacking scandal, made a key recommendation that “newspapers should continue to be self-regulated and the Government should have no power over what they published”. Whilst broadcast media is covered by Ofcom, doubtless it would also face similar threats if those behind the proposed changes are successful.