The kind of exaggeration 38 Degrees used made people ask whether simply filling up someone's inbox with a lot of half-constructed half-truths was a respectable way to campaign. The organisation had not asked people to engage with any of the detail of this issue, and had given a false impression about the headlines. Some would say this route leads us into a form of one-click rent-a-mob – what is now termed "slacktivism" – enabling ill-informed and disconnected instant electronic communication to take the place of genuine political discussion and interaction.Regardless of the precise rights and wrongs on this specific issue, I think Paul Tyler highlights a wider point about the credibility and ethics of 'third sector' organisations and the campaigns they run and the free pass they are often given by the media.
So we see the NSPCC, which provides very little direct care for children, running ever more emotive advertising campaigns, which no doubt provide them with funds for another round of horror-movie-style ads.
Similarly, visiting a National Trust property earlier this year, I was shocked to see them running a disingenous campaign against the government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), as if there every National Trust property was about to be surrounded by new housing estates. (The NPPF is far from perfect and many legitimate criticisms can be made of it, but this should not descend into caricature). Likewise, last year we had homelessness charity Shelter engaging in questionable use of statistics to generate publicity for themselves by attacking local authorities.
Third sector organisations are by no means necessarily noble and disinterested parties. They too have their vested interests - publicity helps them raise funds and gain competitive edge over their rivals. So they have every reason to make their claims sensational and their tactics noisy. Equally, they are likely to be represented by those well-versed in the political game. Campbell-Robb, the director of Shelter worked in the cabinet office under Labour; when MacMillan Nurses denounced the government over benefits earlier this year, their media spokesperson was former Labour parliamentary candidate Mike Hobday.
Of course, charities, NGOs, pressure groups and the like have a vital role to play in any democracy, but their arguments and campaigning tactics should be scrutinised as closely by the media and treated with a degree of scepticism. For that reason Paul Tyler's article is timely and welcome.
PS: I suppose for the sake of full disclosure I should mention that I had my own little local run-in last year with a well-known third sector organisation.