Monday, 28 February 2011

Why you couldn’t pay me to watch Comic Relief

I know how horrible this will sound, but am I the only person whose heart sinks whenever adverts for Comic Relief start clogging up the space between TV programmes? Actually, I know the answer to that, because Ricky Gervais – with whom I rarely find myself in agreement – has made the point that rich entertainers grasping the opportunity to appear all cuddly and compassionate by appearing on TV and emotionally blackmailing people much poorer than themselves into handing over their money is nauseating. (I find celebrities openly crying over video reports of suffering especially emetic.)

I became allergic – in fact, violently antipathetic - to charity telethons back in 1985 when Bob Geldof used the “f” word to solicit yet more of our money. My response was, “Actually, I’d rather fucking not, Bob.” Then I was ordered to do a stint as a phone answerer on Children in Need (luckily, they didn’t have a T-shirt big enough). The first call was from a woman who said that while she didn’t have any money to donate, she would like to offer her services as “Granny for the Day” to one of the deserving little tykes.

I almost threw up.

Any sort of charity recording involving Rock folk has the same negative effect. This “We Are the World” parody is particularly acute - and this one of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” isn’t bad either. And it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at Ricky Gervais’s “Don’t Cry, It’s Christmas” – especially the classic line, “It’s not that he’s invisble, it’s cos you’re going blind”.

I may not be the world’s most compassionate chap, admittedly, but I don’t think I’m entirely heartless. My heart bleeds for all sorts of genuinely suffering people – I’ve even been known to donate money to causes. And I accept that some of the money handed over to Children in Need, Comic Relief and Sport Relief does end up doing some good. But I could never bring myself to donate a penny to any of them.

First, there’s the lack of specificity about where the money’s headed. I don’t like “catch-all” charities, where you don’t quite know where the cash is going, especially when it’s abroad. How can you be absolutely sure it won’t end up being spent on suppressing dissent or perpetuating the system that led to the problem it’s meant to address? 

I also worry about the politics behind Live Aid-style events, which seem to assume that all Third World suffering is somehow the fault of the West, and that it’s jolly unfair that we’re generally wealthier, and that it’s our duty to dig out the old wallet once more as reparation for our heinously exploitative past. 

I don’t buy any of that. 

Besides, Americans and Britons are already the most generous donors in the world, by some margin. Stop bullying us!

I’m also pretty sure that most of the people deciding how the money is spent are of a left-wing disposition, and may be making politically-motivated decisions, rather than sensible ones (though, to be fair, many of the people on the ground seem to be far more hard-headed and practical than the Hollywood-TV-Rock aristocracy who appear to be in a constant state of quivering rage over the failings of the societies which have so lavishly rewarded them). 

Many of the celebrities associated with these events also seem to think it’s their duty to bully Western politicians into handing over more of our money in aid: I don’t much like ordinary people’s taxes being spent to satisfy the consciences of self-righteous multi-millionaires.

I’ve also often wondered if beered-up TV viewers who pledge £20 during a telethon feel that’s the job done – do charities not involved in TV event suffer as a result?  

I also object strongly to charities who pay their chief executives stellar salaries: I imagine there are enough retired rich people eager to “put something back” to run these enterprises for a nominal salary, or just expenses. The idea of “charidy” as a profession is just plain wrong.

I will never, ever give money to charity “muggers” who wear themed sweat-shirts and who are generally on a salary or, even worse, commission, and who might even work for a contractor hired by the charity: the very concept is revolting. (Roughly 80% of us object to charity muggers.) Unpaid volunteers are the only collectors I ever give money to. 

While I was writing this, the bell rang and I went down to find some young women collecting for the NSPCC on the doorstep. This happens frequently – I make it a rule never to spend more than five seconds getting rid of them. I’m a big man, so a ring at the bell during the evening isn’t a problem – but I don’t see why old people and women on their own or looking after children should have to be worried by cold-callers.

Advertise in the print media, radio and TV, stick literature through letter-boxes, use your local church to raise funds (if they’re amenable) and work the normal PR channels - even if that means enlisting a celebrity or a royal – and, as long as the collectors are volunteers, hang around the streets or set up stalls at public events or get sponsorship. Good luck to you! 

Use any other method and you’ve lost me - and, I suspect, a lot of other people as well.


  1. A friend just sent me an email about this post slugged "Barf-Aid" - glad to know I'm not the only curmudgeon out here!
    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 08:08 PM

  2. Theodore Dalrymple points out that "there are few pleasures greater than promoting your moral enthusiasms at other peoples's expense". Chapter 6 in his book "The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality" deals with this subject very lucidly.

    Like you, I become very depressed when these tele-thons come round year after year and wish that I had a TV set that only received BBC4, Sky Atlantic and Movies. Unfortunately, Radio 4 has now been forced to clamber on board as well [Jenni Murray - stand-up comedienne. Jesus!]

    More fortunately, Bono has got problems [the musical Spiderman on Broadway has run up costs of $68m and is still not ready for release] and St Bob is lying doggo so we don't have to suffer their "guilt and intimidation" shtick. However, we still have to suffer Lenny Henry and Angela Rippon and the usual predictable cadre of creeps [source: the impeccable Radio Times].

    To cut to the chase let me use the following short-hand points:

    1. The American version of Comic Relief was started in 1986 [ the driving forces were Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal - say no more], but their target was the American homeless. Why don't we start at home as well? What's this fascination with sub-Saharan Africa? Guilt about the slave trade and colonialism? Give it a rest.

    2. In the 1980's there was a very funny American comedian called Sam Kinison who had a tremendous rant about the relief of African hunger which involved spending all the money on U-Haul trucks - "we will have one trip. We'll take you to where the food is. We have deserts in America - we just don't live in them, assholes!"

    3.Charles Dickens as usual got it right when he satirized Mrs Jellyby in "Bleak House". She spent so much time on the education of the natives of Borioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger that she entirely neglects her own children.

    4. In the book "Hollywood, Interrupted" the authors [Breitbart&Ebner] give their own definition of Political Correctness : "A Hollywood affliction in which troubled souls present themselves as entertainers, but instead use entertainment media as a means to promote a dysfunctional moral and political agenda." This applies also to the crypto-commies at the BBC and the useful idiots who accept their shilling [like, all the soi-disant comedians on Radio 4. Marcus Bloody Brigstocke].

    And finally,where does all the money go? We don't know because like the EU there are no signed off audits at the end of the day. Take Oxfam Trading [ the charity shop part of the operation]: "....manages to extract 17% profit on turnover, despite the fact that its shops have favourable local tax rates, most of the staff are unpaid volunteers, and all the goods for sale cost it nothing". As somebody said, this is a disgrace. Or to conclude "To give goods to Oxfam is is therefore primarily to support the professionals who run it." [All quotes, Theodore Dalrymple].
    Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 03:14 PM

  3. I changed my attitude to charitable giving when I went to Ethiopia in the 1990s and saw some of the projects on which money was being spent. My favourite was the UN women's empowerment project which was designed to take them out of the home to use their skills in the workforce. Driving out of Addis Abbaba, I came across scores of tiny women bent double with the weight of the logs they were carrying on their backs as they made their way to the logging centre. Further on, their unemployed husbands were sitting in the town square smoking Khat and laughing uproariously at the spectacle.

    So don't be surprised if this year's Comic Relief has a Spine Aid project for the exploited women of Ethiopia.
    Friday, March 4, 2011 - 07:25 AM

  4. Or, if you prefer a more recent example. In Haiti, an international charity generously donated a stone crusher for the rebuilding effort following the earthquake. There were none in Haiti and they are essential kit for efficient site clearance. However, the indigenous Haitian plant hire businesses were doing very nicely raising their prices to respond to the demand for other bits of kit from the Government, NGOs and other parts of the relief community. Mysteriously, the stone crusher took 6 months to clear customs.

    I could go on....but I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of Red Nose Day.
    Friday, March 4, 2011 - 07:52 AM

  5. I’m sure the reason our three impeccably Liberal American entertainers choosing homelessness as a cause back in 86 was to embarrass that nasty Ronald Reagan, who was personally responsible for making every low-income American person homeless (or something). Malign compassion – you can’t beat it.

    Lenny Henry represents one of the great mysteries of our age – why would anyone employ him? (I shall return to this subject at another time.) As for Marcus Brigstocke – well, it reaffirms one’s faith in the British that they have so comprehensively taken against this awful, posturing, hypocritical arse of a man. (What do he and the late Joe Strummer of the Clash have in common? They both attended expensive private boarding schools, innit.)

    Mrs Jellyby – agreed: one of the greatest and, currently, relevant figures in all English fiction.

    Thanks for sharing with us the fact that Oxfam shops manage to spend 83% on “running costs”. They still has a way to go to match the effectiveness and generosity of Bono’s ONE foundation, which took £9.6million in donations in 2008 and handed out the princely sum of £118,000 to good causes. That’s 1.2%. Meanwhile ONE paid its 120 staff an average of £42,500 per annum. That sort of philanthropy makes one feel very, very humble.

    Thank you also, Ex-KCS, for those illuminating memories – the Spine Aid suggestion is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time - but, let’s face it, as long as the people working for the charitable organisations involved and their supporters in the entertainment business ended up feeling a little better about themselves, a few crippled Ethiopian women is surely a price well worth paying.
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 - 05:53 PM