When political issues are reduced to acts of charity


Why do we allow the media to de-politicise very political issues?

Because that’s exactly what the BBC’s programme ‘Famous, Rich and Hungry for Sport Relief‘ is.

“Why are you against charity you horrible rotten leftie scoundrel?!?!?”

For a start, what people define as charity is not set in stone. People’s definition of what charity is, is inherently political. Indeed, I’ve had a number of exchanges with my Conservative followers who take the view that charity should be about what an individual or group of people do/does to alleviate the plight of those less well off than them. And that’s it. Absolutely not in their view does charity involve campaigning to persuade people and politicians to change systems, processes, policies and institutional structures to alleviate the problems.

“And the problem is…?”

In this new two-part documentary series, four well-known personalities…

The two actors I’d never heard of, one a self-made millionaire-turned-TV-celeb and the other a well-connected journalist. But then I guess Channel 4 did the Tower Block of Commons with politicians. What happened to the people and communities featured in that programme?

“Doesn’t that just show how out-of-touch with mainstream celeb culture you are?”


(Though I had heard & watched a few of the TV shows the actors were on).

The thing is, the TV programme followed a well-trodden path – one that for me was completely unsuitable for the people struggling to get by that were featured on the show. That’s what made me angry. When the cameras have gone, the media spotlight has moved on and the celebs are back in their mansions, the ordinary people featured – and hundreds of thousands like them – will still have their problems staring them in the face.

“What is that well-trodden route?”

Get some celebrities well known by the followers of celeb culture, put them in front of ‘fly-on-the-wall-style’ cameras to get the tear-jerking scenes, followed by a phone number calling for charitable donations. The show ended with a call for such donations to Sport Relief. Having scrolled through the hashtag on Twitter, I noted there were a fair few people that said they were only watching the programme because one of their favourite celebrities was on it – then being unpleasantly surprised by the picture that was presented.

“Doesn’t it raise awareness of the issues?”

It does … but then completely diverts the attention gained towards a direction that does not solve the problems. This was the bit that made me quite angry.

Hunger is a political issue, not a charity issue

As Rick B put it.

Perhaps in the same way Labour were seen to throw money at social problems in the early 2000s, perhaps the mindset is that by donating to charity, we’ll solve the worlds problems – again by giving money to those that work on the front line for charities.

I’ve expanded further on these points in blogposts here, and also here – on ‘I don’t want your charity, I demand my rights!’.

“What would you have liked to have seen?”

Basically the programme snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Having raised awareness of people living in poverty on our doorsteps, they then implied that the way people could make a difference was by donating to charity. At no point did I spot any mention of politics other than when the benefit recipients went off to collect social security payments. This differed from the Tower Block of Commons approach where the MPs at the time helped organise some of the residents to go after the council, and then pulled in one of the ministers responsible for a meeting.

Inevitably the BBC would have been treading on a political tightrope on this one – you can imagine what the print media would have made if the programme had ended with: “If you want to make a difference, get involved in politics – here’s how…” Hence through Puffles I tweeted links to Writetothem.com.

When I give food to the poor, they say “Yay! Charidee!” When I ask why the poor have no food, they say “Boo! Politics!”

The above tweet has shot round Twitter by the looks of things. It’s basically an adaptation of a well-known quotation from Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who came up with the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

It reminds me of the spats the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP is having with the Trussell Trust – the charity that runs many of the nation’s food banks. (See here). Again, the theme of what the role of a charity should be, comes into play. Should the Trussell Trust stay silent and simply collect and distribute food, or should they at the same time be asking awkward questions of ministers?

In Cambridge, some have gone after the food companies directly

I found out not so long ago that food poverty on our doorstep is an issue that has got local Christians and other religious groups active on social justice issues. Some of these people volunteer at the local food bank – one such volunteer being a former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who now lives locally. When a city as affluent as Cambridge has to have a food bank, you know you’re in trouble. When Emmanuel URC in Cambridge hosted an event on food security chaired by Professor Sir Brian Heap (who happens to go to that church), the audience largely made up of regular parishioners did not pull their punches as they tore (very knowledgeably) into the representatives from large food corporations. (Note the comments at the end of the blogpost here).

“So…where do we go from here?”

I think for starters, rather than jumping straight into ‘politics’, there’s something about inviting the public to think about how to resolve the problems other than fundraising for or donating to charity. Having identified the various things people can do, invite them to think about the action most appropriate to their personality and circumstances for them is. For some that might be a donation. For others, it might be something else, such as awareness raising on a street stall, or organising an event through art and drama. For others it might be a demonstration. For others it might be doing something online. For others it might be going through formal political structures. What works for one might not work for another. I’m not good at doing the street protesting. Others are. I’m not good enough on the art and drama side – others are. But I can do the social media activism and working through formal political structures, because that’s what I have knowledge of.

“So the challenge for each individual is…?”

For any social justice issue that you are passionate about, the challenge is finding the actions that you are content doing where you will have the greatest impact. What that actions ultimately are…is for you to decide.


4 thoughts on “When political issues are reduced to acts of charity

  1. I remember very well Geldolf tearing into Thatcher about the buttermilk mountain. The rage and disgust that man exhibited was precisely and righteous. The BBC didn’t shy from the politics of hunger in those days. The BBC knew once upon a time hunger was not a matter or charity, but political. It still is. We all understood needless hunger was exactly what we should be angry about. When was the last time the BBC didn’t shy from the threat hunger poses to life?

    When was the last time UK journalists held politicians to account over hunger? Their job is supposed to be about challenging power. When will they?

    Governments are CHOOSING to leave people suffering hunger. Let;s be honest here. Hunger kills. “I’ll nudge you to do X or you will suffer hunger” is not being applied by charities. It is being applied by politicians. Name the politicians who find this abhorrent. Name and shame those who feel this is perfectly reasonable. Would the BBC dare? If not, why not? Chasing entertainment ratings? Is that what the BBC is doing? Using hunger to get some entertainment ratings?

    It’s way past time the BBC reflected UK back at itself and informed the public as it goes. I see no road back for the BBC and that makes the future of people in UK seem ever bleaker to me.


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