Time for BBC to ditch the red noses

Published in the Daily Mail (December 9th, 2013)

From the moment Comic Relief was launched in a Sudanese refugee camp on Christmas Day 28 years ago, the country’s highest-profile telethon has harnessed the power of celebrity to promote itself as a virtuous force for good in a gloomy world. 

Over the years, Red Nose Day has become a British institution. Prime ministers, pop stars and television presenters perform jolly japes on screen, while from schools to offices people are encouraged to dress up for fund-raising stunts.

Using the unrivalled platform presented by our state broadcaster, Comic Relief has raised an incredible £900million from the generous British public. No other charity gets such privileged exposure. But then stars such as Jennifer Saunders, Graham Norton and David Beckham repeatedly parrot the core pledge that every penny goes straight to those who need it.

Now, thanks – ironically – to a BBC Panorama programme which airs tonight, we discover this is not quite the whole truth. It has established that Comic Relief sits on vast unused funds (currently more than £100million) and, rather disturbingly, refuses to tell the public precisely where it is investing their donations.

Unlike Children in Need and most other major charities, it has put substantial sums into firms selling arms, alcohol and tobacco – even though these conflict with its stated aims of fighting alcohol abuse, conflict and the consequences of smoking.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy from such aggressive investing, and it gets worse – for Comic Relief is growing fat on the profits, which are used in part to pay high salaries and boost staff numbers. Its wage bill nearly doubled in four years to £13million: its chief executive’s soaring salary stands at £130,823 and another five senior staff earn more than £90,000.

This is bad enough, although unsurprising in the bloated aid sector. But the relationship between the BBC and Comic Relief raises a far more fundamental issue: why does the state broadcaster devote vast slabs of valuable schedules to promote the aid industry’s fiercely contested world view?

There is one message underlying those weeks of excitable Comic Relief build-up, the special editions of hit shows, the political endorsements, the feel-good films of Western stars saving Africa.

This is the simplistic idea that torrents of aid are an unalloyed benefit to the world – which is at odds with so much expert evidence and a swelling chorus of critical voices.

Videos satirising events such as Comic Relief have gone viral on the internet; one film features Africans appealing to send radiators to snowy Norway.

Meanwhile, the latest person to highlight what he calls the ‘aid illusion’ is Angus Deaton, a Scots-born economist at Princeton University in America. His trenchant criticism of what he calls neo-colonialism has stunned the aid sector because he was once a true believer; he is probably the world’s greatest expert on measuring global poverty.

In a brilliant new book, Prof Deaton says £3trillion in aid has been blown over the past half-century without any evidence of overall beneficial effect. One of the tragedies of aid, he says, is that dedicated do-gooders end up causing more harm to people already in distress.

This is because big aid flows achieve the opposite of their aims by corroding local politics and corrupting democracy. It is profoundly anti-democratic to pour free money into the pockets of poorly run regimes. In short, it means they have no need to win the good faith of citizens by delivering decent public services based on taxation.

I have long made similar arguments, informed by what I have seen reporting from places such as Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Somalia and Pakistan. I have been shocked by the activities of some charities, witnessing arrogant contempt for local people and astonishingly wasteful practices.

Behind all the posturing from pop stars and politicians lie rather different realities that might surprise well-meaning Britons giving up time and money for good causes.

A new report revealed yesterday that aid groups in Somalia paid thousands of pounds in ‘registration fees’ to al-Shabaab, the terror gang that slaughtered scores of shoppers – including six Britons – in a Kenyan shopping mall three months ago. The militant Islamists also plundered the aid itself, taking two-thirds of food supplied to one town so it could feed its own fighters.

So why is the BBC taking sides in such an important and complex debate? Instead of the impartiality directed by its royal charter, it pumps out propaganda for the pro-aid lobby through support for Comic Relief.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, given how the two organisations have become entwined. Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, is chairman of Comic Relief, while Bal Samra, the corporation’s commercial director, is on the charity’s investment board.

Given such internal sensitivities, tonight’s Panorama documentary was delayed from October while lawyers and BBC executives argued over the claims made. Comic Relief’s chief executive has already emailed celebrity supporters, warning them of ‘misleading’ stories and urging them to use Twitter to rebut them.

I understand the BBC was threatened that if the allegations were broadcast, Comic Relief might move to a rival broadcaster. The new current affairs team under director-general Tony Hall deserve great credit for standing firm. 

But if Comic Relief does not jump ship, I believe the BBC should sever links with it anyway – as I urged the Corporation’s governing trust and its chairman Chris Patten last month during a public discussion of its Africa coverage.

Some charities are good, some are bad – but all should be scrutinised, because combined they form one of the most powerful forces in the modern world. How else can the well-meaning British public decide where to place their donations?


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