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A Foundation for better things to come

It started with a grant at a time when giving did not figure on the owners' agenda. Most of them were more interested in exploiting their stakes in what had become an increasingly valuable but tantalisingly illiquid asset. They wanted cash for their own individual business purposes.

Three decades ago, when The Reuter Foundation was created as a charitable trust, Reuters was a privately-held organisation collectively owned by newspaper publishers of Britain, Ireland,  Australia and New Zealand. Reuters, long Fleet Street’s poor relation, had come into money.

Although the owners were discussing a flotation the company had not yet listed on stock markets in London and New York. Selling shares to the public, in 1984, raised capital for development and enabled the owners to release the wealth they had tied up in a newly lucrative business. 

“The British Press were never renowned for their acts of charity,” Michael Nelson, general manager at the time, told The Baron. “It was therefore seen as a gesture of great generosity when the Reuter Board, which they dominated, on 8 September 1982 accepted my recommendation to give £1 million to establish the Reuter Foundation in the following year.”

In part, the Foundation was a response to political attacks on all Western news agencies for showing little continuing interest in so-called “third world” countries. A UNESCO and Communist-backed campaign for a “new information order” attempted among other things to brand news agencies, including Reuters, as exploiters of the developing world. 

The campaign gained momentum through the release of a 1980 report titled Many Voices, One World by an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems set up by UNESCO. The report, written by Irish politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sean MacBride, was condemned by the United States and Britain as an attack on the freedom of the press. Both countries withdrew from UNESCO in protest.

Through the Foundation, Reuters countered the attacks by enabling promising mid-career journalists to study at Western universities. At the same time, it was building a network of potentially influential friends for the future. Later it reacted to the collapse of the Soviet bloc by starting short practical training courses for journalists emerging from the Communist system.

Although the Foundation was independent of Reuters’ business interests its guidelines were based on Paul Julius Reuter’s principles of accuracy, impartiality, reliability and technical innovation.

The aim was to help journalists from developing countries by offering fellowships to enable them to spend a sabbatical period in mid-career studying subjects beneficial to their work. Two fellowships were at Oxford University, two at Stanford University, California, and one at Bordeaux University. This activity is now carried on by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism which was established at Oxford in 2006 with core funding from the Foundation as a research centre for international comparative journalism.

The Foundation was intended to “help narrow the gap between industrialised and developing countries in the use of information technology”, as the company’s staff magazine Reuters World reported in January 1983. Later it extended its supportive activities into a variety of educational and humanitarian causes.

It has trained more than 11,000 journalists worldwide, enhancing ethical and professional standards in journalism across 170 countries. Projects in recent years have included Aswat Al Iraq, Iraq’s first independent news agency, and in Egypt Aswat Masriya, an independent political news website. A team of 25 Foundation journalists covers the world’s under-reported stories, putting the emphasis on humanitarian relief, climate change, corruption, women’s rights and social innovation.

AlertNet was established in 1997 in the aftermath of genocide in  Rwanda as a free humanitarian news service covering crises worldwide. The website’s news and information on natural disasters, conflicts, refugees, hunger, diseases and climate change now attracts nearly 12 million visitors a year. When big natural disasters occur, AlertNet provides critical and practical information in local languages to affected populations through its free Emergency Information Service.

“As the keeper of the Foundation flame for one of its three decades, from 1989 to 2000, I am delighted to see how the founding principles are vigorously living on through the Trust Media programmes – journalism training, the Oxford Institute and AlertNet – and through its impressive new initiatives,” said Stephen Somerville, now chairman of The Reuter Society.

Since Thomson’s takeover of Reuters in 2008 journalism has been surpassed by the law as the largest part of the Foundation’s activity. TrustLaw Connect is an electronic market place created in 2010 to connect lawyers willing to work at no cost with non-governmental organisations and social enterprises in need of legal support. It counts around 1,000 members including 260 law firms and in-house legal teams in more than 140 countries and has made more than 600 connections for projects and supported over 30 programmes on such issues as social innovation, corruption, human trafficking, land rights and micro finance. In two years it has generated the equivalent of $25 million in pro bono legal assistance.

Last December the Foundation, in partnership with The International Herald Tribune, organised an international conference dedicated to putting the rule of law behind women’s rights. It tackled such issues as human trafficking, slavery, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and the Arab Spring. Another conference is planned for December 2013. The Best and Worst G20 Countries to be a Woman, a Foundation poll which reached more than three million people through Twitter, continues to be quoted by hundreds of media outlets around the world.

Looking back on all that has been achieved, Nelson said: “I must confess that I never foresaw the great institution it would become over the next 30 years. It has moreover gone from further strength to strength since Thomson acquired Reuters. We owe much to Monique Villa, who has managed it with such creativity, drive and panache over the last five years.”

Villa is a French journalist who joined Reuters in 2001 as managing director of Reuters text and pictures media business. She was appointed chief executive of the Foundation following the  takeover. The Reuter Foundation became the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “a strategic, high-impact and truly global corporate foundation that reflects the expertise and business acumen of the company”.

Besides Somerville and Villa, other executives who have headed the Foundation were Michael Neale, Michael Cooling, David Chipp, Maureen Marlowe and Rosemary Martin. David Ure served as its chairman for 10 years.

“For three decades we have leveraged the skills, values, and expertise of Thomson Reuters to make a difference in people’s lives worldwide,” Villa said. “At the Foundation, we don’t give grants. Instead we use our unique set of skills to run programmes that trigger change and empower people: free legal assistance, international media development, and in-depth coverage of the world's under-reported stories.”

To mark the Foundation’s 30th anniversary, its website will appear in a new form to provide better, faster access to everything the Foundation does. Villa bought the internet address from a shop in Texas. From 24 April it will be the portal to all Foundation news and services.

“In the past few years we have achieved a lot,” said Villa. “Trust me, this is just the beginning.”


PHOTO (Barry May): Monique Villa, Thomson Reuters Foundation chief executive, flanked by Stephen Somerville, director of the Reuter Foundation from 1989 to 2000 (left), and Michael Nelson who, as Reuters general manager, in 1982 persuaded the board of directors to make a £1 million grant to establish the Foundation as the company’s charitable arm.