It seems as though Comic Relief has an unrivalled opportunity to capture the public imagination, and particularly that of children, and mobilise them to address the issues of world poverty. Over its 25 years, it has raised over £800 million, and so has had a real impact on the areas in which it has worked. So how could anyone possibly object?
Well, sitting through the programme on Friday evening gave me lots of reasons.
1. I really disliked the serious moments, when we were given a camera’s-eye view of adults and children suffering and dying. I understand that the purpose was to shake us up with the reality in many parts of the world, and confront us with that reality, but after the second or third episode it felt to me almost pornographic.
2. I also disliked the focus on how upset the celebrities were to be there. There were times when their feelings seemed more significant than the people they were with. More importantly, watching people experiencing this bears no relation to seeing it for yourself.
I remember a few years ago talking to a student at St John’s from Africa. He didn’t look very happy, so I asked him what was wrong. ‘The harvest has failed, and my family back home have nothing to eat.’ That experience has stayed with me more powerfully than anything I have seen on the small screen.
3. Once more, it seemed as though we were given a single picture of poverty in general, and Africa in particular—that it was a continent full of poor and helpless people who need our aid. This is just one small part of this remarkable, vibrant world, and such a picture does not do it justice.
4. In Facebook discussion, someone posed the question: ‘How can we still be needing to do this, 25 years on?’ I firmly believe that programmes like this obscure the answer, rather than offering it. The problem with global poverty is not that we don’t make donations—it is that we are part of an unjust, iniquitous trade system driven by consumerism, branding, multinationals and free market economics. This system not only sustains global inequality, but drives extraordinary levels of inequality within countries, in all parts of the world.
Programmes which say to us: ‘Give us £10, but don’t change your lifestyle’ exacerbate the problem, rather than solving it.
5. I’m afraid to say I also disliked Comic Relief’s sense of self-importance. Sure, the £800m raised over 25 years is a lot of money—it is the amount Oxfam generates every other year. Yet where does this, and other aid and education charities, get the same kind of profile on the BBC? Where was the recognition of the many Christian agencies involved here? Which leads me to…
6. Why the utter cynicism towards Christian faith as part of the ‘entertainment’? Rowan Atkinson’s Archbishop sketch was the sort of sad, cynical, unfunny sketch we got used to in the 1980s (for those of us around then!). The really sad thing is that, in Justin Welby, we have an Archbishop with experience of the Majority World, and a concern for justice, who would (I am sure) have been happy to contribute in his own right. And where were the Christian comedians?
7. And why the constant, endless, sexual innuendo, especially before the 9 pm watershed. I’m not the only one to be concerned about this; see Krish Kandia‘s comment. You might want to be in touch with the BBC yourself; he tells you how.
As someone commented to me, the most offensive thing is the continuing existence of hunger and poverty, when globally we continue to throw away between 30% and 50% of our food, and in the West we play our part.
Let’s do something about it—but why not let that thing be well informed, genuinely family-friendly, untainted by cynicism, and recognising the work that others do.