What’s wrong with Comic Relief?

We were subjected once again to the annual ritual of Comic Relief, where it is demanded that we oscillate between the emotions of laughter and grief in order to reach a fund-raising target. There seems to be more criticism of the event this year then in previous years, not for its ends but for its means. David Lammy, the Labour MP, was very thorough in his criticism:

Few organisations can claim to be so successful at mobilising people in the cause of tackling poverty in Britain – my Tottenham constituency has certainly seen the benefits – and across the world. But when I asked my mixed-race nine-year-old son why he thinks I should give money to him for wearing a red nose at school today, his reply was telling: “But we have to help the poor people in Africa, daddy.” How different is this to what his white grandparents would say? Africa may have changed beyond recognition, but over the generations knowledge and attitudes in Britain haven’t.

Comic Relief has tattooed images of poverty in the African continent to the point where few of us can escape the guilt of not donating. The result: a tidal wave of donations, but little to challenge the Band Aid interpretation of an Africa “where nothing ever grows”. It still blurs the 54 separate, sovereign nations into a single reservoir of poverty, grief and suffering. One billion African people are filtered into just two categories: either corrupt politicians replete with Savile Row suits and Swiss bank accounts, or poverty-stricken mothers swarmed by flies, their childrens’ stomachs swollen by hunger.

(Lammy’s family is not itself from Africa, but from Guyana, part of the Caribbean in South America. So though not directly implicated, you can understand his particular sympathies.)

My friend Evan Cockshaw made this comment and comparison on Facebook, which was a helpful aid to putting Comic Relief in context.

1. Christian aid agencies, the church nationally and people like Oxfam overwhelm the work of Comic Relief. Although it’s not a competition it is notable how little anyone seems to care in the media about that work which goes on endlessly.

2. On last night’s show which received £71m donations from the average joe, the combined wealth of JUST the car pool karaoke was as follows: 
James Corden: estimated net worth of at least $10m (I’ve read one website suggesting his worth is around $80m but that seems a little steep)
Gary Barlow: estimated wealth $67m
Mark Owen: estimated wealth $25m
Howard Donald: estimated wealth $40m. 

That’s JUST the car pool karaoke slot. When you think about the combined wealth of ALL the stars on the stage, of their lifestyles and hedonism the rest of the year, of the way in which we all enable poverty to prosper around the world in our pursuit of entertainment and luxury … I wonder what’s going on with TV telethons.

He then adds:

Ed Sheeran $60m
Rowan Atkinson $130m
Liam Neeson $70m
Jonathan Ross $27m
Lenny Henry $9m
Emily Sande $8m
Graham Norton $30m
Russell Brand $15m
Hugh Grant $80m

To which another friend responds: ‘I suggest that the rich and famous simply give a tithe of a 10th to charity. I think that would cover it.’

Four years ago I wrote the following reflection on Comic Relief 2013; sadly, not that much appears to have changed.

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.

David Lammy concludes his piece:

Of course the fundraising is worthwhile, but the Red Nose Day formula is tired and patronising to Africans. This year things must be different. We must have voices debating debt and dictatorship, trade agreements and climate change, education and entrepreneurship – not just appeals for people to phone in and pledge a few pounds. Otherwise another opportunity will be missed.

 I cannot help thinking that it was.

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7 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Comic Relief?”

  1. Thank you Ian, a thought-provoking post. I broadly agree.

    But how realistic really is it do you think to establish an alternative to our ‘trade system driven by consumerism, branding, multinationals and free market economics’. What even does that look like? And would it be free?

    In the meantime, surely Africa does have a lot of needy people in it who benefit from being recipients of our charity?

    • Hi Will,

      There are alternatives tariff escalation, whereby developed countries treat raw food imports more favourably (e.g. cocoa beans) than the most basic of processed agricultural products (e.g. cocoa powder and chocolate crumb containing cocoa butter) by imposing ad valorem taxes (~7 to 15%) on the latter.

      For instance, back in 2012, for cocoa, the comparative prices were:
      Bean price: GBP 1,500/tonne
      Butter price: : GBP 2,100/tonne
      Powder price: GBP 2,600/tonne.

      Reducing tariff escalation can help promote processed exports from developing countries, generate support for liberalization of the service sector in those nations, while simultaneously benefiting unskilled workers in developed countries.

      This would be viable, except for the skilled labour and capital owners who vigorously lobby our government to maintain and even increase these differential rates of protection between stages of production.

      On this basis, the Church needs to reflect on its advocacy on behalf on unskilled workers in developing countries whose opportunities to improve are hampered by developed countries imposing heavy trade restrictions on processed commodities.

      There are needy people in Africa who benefit from receiving our charity, but compare the Marshall Plan after the Second World War.

      Of course, the conditions under which $13.3 Trillion (1.2% US GNP) was disbursed in the form of grants to non-communist European nations demonstrates that the motives behind the Marshall Plan were far from altruistic. So, this economic assistance coupled with the lowering of US trade barriers for recipient nations was particularly aimed at containing the threat of Soviet expansion.

      Nevertheless, the results were staggering: Europe’s GNP increased by 32.5% to 159 billion between 1947 and 1951.

      By comparison, I perceive that there’s comparatively little political will for Western nations to support Africa in the same way that post-war Europe was supported.

  2. Umm….this ‘ranting’ post was a bit hit and miss. First of all in what way were you subjected’ to watching the Comic Relief coverage? Surely you could of changed the channel or switched of the TV entirely?

    In my opinion Comic Relief (CR) as a charity has been tainted due to it’s BBC association.There is real annoyance about the enforced telly tax on ordinary folk and the liberal leftist propaganda spewed from this organisation, often by public figures and celebs whom themselves avoid paying huge amounts of tax. So to see these characters recoil with emotion when confronted with poverty leaves me jaded – CR supports many UK organisations which fill the gap the Gov’t won’t or can’t financially.

    However for the writer of this article to use a loaded word like porn, is at best disgraceful and very telling of the middle class dinner table type of chatter that is laced with annoyance and resentment at the guilt and emotion stirred by those type of videos. Furthermore, to say that the relayed experience of a video bears no relation to seeing it for yourself, is perplexing. The concept of the eyewitness account has been used for centuries and as someone who has been on many outreaches to deprived parts of the world, I would have to disagree with you, as they were quite relateable to my own.

    It’s great that you wish to highlight that Africa is a varied place, with growing economies etc. However the fact remains, there are still places of desperate poverty and need. As a Brexiteer, I am glad you touched on one of bigger problems that has made Comic Relief so needed and this is the unjust international trade system and unscrupulous multinational corporations whom continue to abuse their positions in these countries. The EU shut out Africa decades ago and it is my hope that the UK will establish mutually beneficial trade ties with Africa – at least with it’s Commonwealth relations soon.

    I could go on discuss in detail the point made about CR in relation to Christian Aid which I found a bit facetious, but I won’t. The final point I want to make is just how bereft of actual humour the hours of coverage was. I totally agree that the unpalatable cheap laughs and vulgarity was a sad reflection of the state of mainstream British comedy the BBC wishes to promote. There are other comedians out there like Peter Kay whom appeal to a broader demographic or the silly, alternative Milton Jones or pun king Tim Vine – whom both are Christians.

    If I was to answer the question of what’s wrong with Comic Relief, I would say it stopped being funny, It stopped being cool and it stopped focusing on the general public’s often hilarious personal charity challenges(I remember seeing a whole office wear granddad pants on the outside of their trousers). When you cease to fulfil an explicit mandate to provide humour, you become somewhat pointless and if this is a big part of the premise of the organisation….it doesn’t bode well for the future.

  3. “Programmes which say to us: ‘Give us £10, but don’t change your lifestyle’ exacerbate the problem, rather than solving it.”

    I think this is your best point and one worth expanding on if you get the chance.

  4. I donated to comic relief. I think relieving poverty is the responsibility of us all. If I see a needy person in need of help I am not going to wait until a celebrity comes along to donate instead.Poverty is not just the responsibilty of a select few but us all ( so why just 71 million in a country of 70million) We could have donated more? We do not know how much celebrities give already to good causes and my guess is that a lot of them give a lot. I enjoyed watching it, found it funny, slap stick and fun. I was also very moved by the stories and it puts things into perspective for us who have so much….! Well done comic relief. 🙂

  5. There are some complex issues here, leaving aside the questions of taste. I write as a Christian and as a former senior member of the fundraising leadership team at Oxfam, having worked at World Vision UK before that.

    One bit of context: interest in development issues in the UK public has been on the wane since the high water mark of Make Poverty History and the G8 summit in 2005. The UK Aid Attitude Tracker shows declining levels of action on every indicator of engagement. Although attitudes among UK Christians are not tracked, I would guess that we are not immune from this trend. Whilst Christians were very much the driving force behind the Jubilee Debt Campaign and then Make Poverty History, we don’t seemed to have found a such a coherent rallying cry since.

    The David Lammy piece asks for a less patronising approach to Africa, and I agree that Comic Relief can present a very stereotypical view. It seems we don’t know enough to care, and don’t care enough to know. At least Christians ought to start from a perspective that we do know enough about the character of God to care about those living in poverty.

    As for the fundraising “technique” and the way in which Comic Relief can take us on an emotional roller coaster, it is a sad fact that the “quick fix” of need- solution -resolution delivers short-term results, even though it may feed a “nothing ever changes” view. My own learning from the “school of hard fundraising knocks” is that when Oxfam tried to present a more empowering perspective on poverty in its Lift Lives for Good campaign in December 2013, results were well below expectations and the campaign was pulled. Sad, but true.

    One, minor, technical postscript: Oxfam is a recipient of Comic Relief funds, along with many other International NGO’s.

  6. Thank you for raising these issues. In particular I am glad that I am not alone in finding the beeb pretty blinkered when looking at Christianity. And yes, a personal giving witness from a “celebrity” , I hardly dare mention stewardship would be enlightening.

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