The Cold War

by | Jul 11, 2015 | Data Protection, Direct marketing

Another day, another headline about charity marketing calls. The Daily Mail proclaims ‘VICTORY’ against the scourge of charity call centres, reporting urgent (though vague) promises from the Prime Minister, and the closure of three of the rogue agency GoGen’s four call centres. As always, the charities are shocked and horrified, keen to distance themselves from the filthy phone banks. An Oxfam spokesman said: ‘We welcome this decision from the Government to enable us to rid our sector of rogue fundraisers and recognise the efforts of the Daily Mail for bringing this issue into the public arena” This sounds fine. Oxfam have seemingly put their money where their mouth is by pulling campaigns by GoGen and Listen Ltd following Daily Mail stories.

Not everything that the Mail uncovered is a breach of Data Protection or PECR – even cold calling is only unlawful if it is directed at someone on the Telephone Preference Service. However, Data Protection does help to establish that the apparent distance between charities and their agents is an illusion. The charity is the data controller for all the calls made – the call centres are data processors, agents acting solely on the instruction of their charity paymasters. If data protection and privacy laws are breached, they are breached by the charities. The Mail’s story focusses on new written agreements to underpin the charity / marketer relationship. But if there is not a clear written contract between them already, ensuring that the marketer acts only on the charity’s instructions, with a clear check that security requirements are being followed, this is a breach of the 7th Data Protection principle. The largest data protection civil monetary penalty (£325,000) was levied for such a breach.

Oxfam’s zeal for rooting out the bad apples, reflected again in a soothing appearance on the Today programme this morning by the organisation’s Chief Executive Mark Goldring, sounds good, but we’ve been here before. In 2013, a fundraising company called Tag Campaigns went into liquidation following an expose in the Daily Telegraph about their dodgy practices. Then as now, Oxfam were quick to react. The Telegraph story reported that following their revelations, Oxfam dutifully pulled their support for Tag Campaigns. The directors of Tag, Tony Charalambides and Matt Atkinson, did not exactly leave the fundraising sector with their tails between their legs however. Atkinson is Director of One Sixty, a fundraising company. Charalambides is Director of – what’s this? – Listen Ltd. It doesn’t end there.

According to another Telegraph report, Listen’s parent company is the Gift Group, owned by two gentlemen called Chris Kazamias and Darren Instrall. The Gift Group also owned – you’ve guessed it – Tag Campaigns, before Kazamias and Instrall created a new parent company for it called TCLLH, presumably in the hope of distancing it from the others. If any of the current companies becomes too toxic, I have no doubt that they will close, and the tabloid hacks will hail it as a victory. You might believe that Oxfam are entirely innocent of these complex corporate shenanigans – but this would mean that they don’t due any due diligence on their agents. I don’t know how you could square that with the requirements of the 7th Data Protection principle, or the fact that Oxfam told the Today programme earlier this week that they listen into their agent’s calls, write scripts and train staff. Goldring claimed that the problems revealed by the Mail did not affect the ‘Oxfam contract’, but the Mail have already confirmed that their undercover reporter swapped contracts during a shift. Can they really go from shark to saint so seamlessly?

The rules on phone and text marketing are not complicated. If calls are made to raise funds for Oxfam, they are legally responsible for them, and nobody else is. The tabloid mantra of ‘charity cold calling sharks’, the emphasis in the current Mail story on binding contracts for agencies, the relentless, repetitive bullshit about non-existent loopholes – all of it is a cover-up in which journalists, regulators and politicians are easily, even willingly ensnared.

The people running these marketing agencies are coining it in, creaming off their profits from charity donations. The tactics used by some charity fundraising organisations are similar to PPI and double-glazing companies – target the vulnerable, don’t take no for an answer. Many calls made on behalf of charities are unlawful under PECR and Data Protection. The important thing is, the charities know it is happening. Whether they consider it an uncomfortable fact of life, or something they’re wholly in favour of, I have no idea. I do not believe that they are unaware. They have been burned by dodgy marketers before, and either they are too stupid to learn the lessons, or they choose not to.

The most important thing is, the charities are responsible of the calls and the tactics. Even if you believe that the charities are unwitting innocents, they are still legally responsible for the calls. The idea that Oxfam want to ‘rid the sector of rogue fundraisers’ is nonsense. When the rogue fundraiser Tag Campaigns was exposed, Oxfam stopped using them, but still used Listen, a company owned and run by the same people who owned and ran Tag. They only stopped when Listen was exposed.

It’s likely that some of the agencies named and shamed by the Mail will close up shop. But unless the Information Commissioner and the Charity Commission crack down hard, the same people will set up new companies with new names, and the charities will hire them. In 2017, the Mail or the Telegraph or Channel 4 will once again send in undercover journalists, and another temporary moral panic will begin. Nothing will change except the logos.

Either people care what the charities are doing, or they don’t. Either you think that the end justifies the means, or you don’t. The Daily Mail is, much as I regret to say it, doing good work in the public interest, but it’s nothing new. I’m not the first person to point out the charities’ awareness of their misbehaviour. But they will only stop if someone stops them.