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
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.