Another abuse of power

Published by The i paper (26th February, 2018)

I am a big fan of the BBC. Yes, it can be its own worst enemy, while the licence fee defies logic in this digital age. But for all its bumbling bureaucracy, its stumbling over pay and its rather pompous self-regard, the corporation is still one of Britain’s most admirable institutions. It is rightly respected around the world – and the more I travel, the more I give thanks for our state broadcaster. I would also argue the Beeb deserves more credit than it gets for genuine efforts to eliminate bias and all those agonies over how best to reflect a rapidly-evolving nation.

So it is with the concern of a friend rather than the fury of an enemy that I would suggest BBC bosses reflect on the implications of the charity crisis that has hogged headlines in recent weeks. This is a scandal over abuse of power, whether of workers in disaster zones paying for sex with desperate women or bosses back in Britain covering up harassment to protect their brands. But it also raises serious questions over the accountability and operations of a sector pumped full of huge amounts of taxpayers’ cash.

My own view, based on reporting around the world, is that aid is often damaging in developing nations by propping up despots, driving corruption and fuelling conflict. All that free cash from foreigners makes some rich people richer while stunting the growth of democracy. This is a view shared by many experts, including the most recent British-born, Nobel-winning economist – and indeed by some of the BBC’s best-known reporters. Even African presidents are starting to call openly for an end to a demeaning dependency culture, while many young Africans hate the corrosive ‘white saviour’ imagery of this bloated industry.

You may agree or disagree. But what is clear is that there is strong debate over the efficacy of aid – and this has now been inflamed by a series of scandals swirling around some of the biggest charities and private sector operators. Any idea that the poverty industry is somehow a uniquely hallowed sector filled with saints has been ripped apart by sleazy stories of sexual abuse, dirty tricks and profiteering. This challenges the shameful complacency of their paymasters at Westminster, so desperate to look compassionate – and of some parts of the media.

Now the BBC faces hard questions. It is the most influential media organisation in the country with a statutory duty to serve in the public interest and provide impartial output. Yet it promotes the aid industry with slavish loyalty. It hands over precious chunks of the schedules, adopts its arguments on global poverty and even takes huge sums from the state for its own development charity. Senior executives are entwined with the sector. So is it any wonder it has a history of treating aid chiefs like sanctified oracles on news shows, even letting them determine the agenda?

The most obvious sign of institutional bias comes with the BBC backing of Comic Relief, which will be seen again with the biennial Sports Relief next month. This pushes a clear message to schools and viewers that aid works. It sends a signal that spraying money around the planet is an unalloyed good, that heroic celebrities dropping in on slums are doing good, that wealthy Westerners are saving the world. Never mind that many of its claims are questionable, much of the coverage hideously patronising and the barrage of films present distorted images of proud places. For this is how the aid sector became rich and powerful: by harnessing celebrity culture, just like Live Aid and all those charities with famous ‘ambassadors’, to promote their self-aggrandising world view.

Comic Relief displays some of the ills of its troubled sector. The pay of its chief executive rose over the past two years from £132,194 to £155,690 – which is now more than the prime minister – while the number of top brass on six-figure salaries doubled from two to four. It took £10.4m from the department of international development according to latest accounts, then circulates millions to major charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children – already such big state beneficiaries. Yet its chair is Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, while trustees include Charlotte Moore, who oversees all BBC content and remains Controller of BBC1.

It also hands cash to Media Action, which is the BBC’s own development charity, and which claims to help “transform lives” in some of the poorest parts of the planet. Needless to say, it also helps spend a bit of those billions the Government takes from taxpayers to hit its absurd and discredited aid target. Last year it was handed £14.1m by Dfid, along with £3.8m from the Foreign Office, £3.9m from the United Nations and £2.3m from the EU. It also has partnerships with controversial firms such as Atos, which has been heavily criticised in the past for its role in implementing “fit for work” tests, though it has not been involved in the tests since 2014.

This all adds up to a problem for the BBC. Instead of displaying impartiality, it is heavily invested in one side of an increasingly contentious debate. It pushes the flawed argument for aid with its telethons, promotes charities involved in these current scandals and is an active participant in a controversial government policy. Senior executives have personal ties to a sector plagued by insidious corruption, while the corporation is itself linked to questionable commercial relationships. This is not right, proper or wise. Indeed, in its own way we are witnessing another disturbing abuse of power.

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