Poverty Porn and the Fake News Furore

Credit: Comic Relief

There is so much wrong with Poverty Porn as a heading, it is hard to know where to start dismantling it. Only the sloppiest or most crass of sub-editors would have likened Comic Relief’s fundraising to pornography. Yes, it is a neat piece of alliteration and will get people reading the piece, but the whole article is a classic case of shooting the messenger.

Mankind, it is said, cannot stand too much reality – and here faced visually with what is actually happening in the world, in a way we can’t ignore, we quickly indulge in our favourite game; which unfortunately, isn’t to reach out and help those in trouble, but to attack both the messenger, and for good measure, the message too. Am I wrong in thinking that, this anally retentive tendency is especially prevalent when the message contains a financial ask? Then we can put our precious money back in our tight little pockets and tut loudly about the way we were asked.

People trying to help, like Ed Sheeran, become labelled ‘misguided’, ‘naïve’ or worse ‘well meaning’ yet he gave a completely normal human reaction; which was to help the children that were filmed, for which he should be applauded not censored. He treated the children like the tiny human beings in real need that they were. This is opposite of pornography which demeans and degrades; yet applauding ‘do gooders’ doesn’t get you a cutting headline or merit an anti-award from an ivory-tower institution. In this case the Radi-Aid award organised by the Norwegian Students and Academics International Assistance Fund (Saih).

Is this film then “simply reinforcing white saviour stereotypes”? Just look at Ed, does he look or sound like some self-important saviour? Is he white – well yes, but he can’t do much about that. Does Comic Relief only use white heroes? Just look at a broadcast! It was also said it looked like he was the only one coming to help, but that just isn’t true he was obviously there on behalf of Comic Relief.

In the same article, I noticed a lot of praise was given to a rather imaginative War Child film featuring Batman who morphs into the child’s father. Batman? Hadn’t the writer noticed something… apparently this film “shows it is possible to play on our emotions without playing on guilt”. I rather liked Ed’s film as you may have guessed, and one thing it didn’t do was to make me feel guilty. Making people feel guilty backfires – us fundraisers all know that and we don’t do it.

A call was made by SAIH for “a shift away from stereotypes about people living in poverty”. A sentence that collapses under the weight of its own improbability, as people living in poverty tend to live similar lives for obvious reasons. Yet here, I thought, Comic Relief actually gave a rather different and engaging view of poverty.

Whilst we are on a roll let’s look at a few more sloppy sentences:

Such as, Ed “…offers to pay hotel costs for street children in Liberia, verged on “poverty tourism”. The writer uses the word ‘hotel’ as it sounds more out of touch then what really happened as Ed discusses how he could help. What was agreed, was a home where these young children could live with an older person to look after them with Comic Relief behind the help. Is that tourism or just common sense and giving back the dignity and the chance of a positive future that poverty had taken from these children? Note ‘poverty’ not Ed nor Comic Relief.

I was also struck by another phase, that I have read elsewhere, which doesn’t seem to bear much scrutiny either: “…people are so used to them that for many they reinforce that feeling of hopelessness and apathy”. My experience is that these films, and indeed fundraising campaigns in general, give people a unique insight in to what can be done to alleviate poverty, and have helped to fuel the large-scale changes that are a key part of the very positive changes happening in many African countries, which is massively reducing poverty. But that is a good news story and so it is rarely featured. On the contrary, the way the media always demands conflict in its articles, and the presentation of problems without solutions in its news, is a drag on the whole development industry.

So, were we for a moment to take these criticisms seriously what is the alternative? We could have a non-white person presenting the appeal – no problem there. They could be someone who we don’t know – which as you might guess would lower the income raised as the number of people paying attention would be so much less. We could sweep the whole thing under the carpet and not show people suffering just happy smiling faces, which as we all know doesn’t move people to give more than a pittance. We make an emotional decision to give with our heart when we see people suffering, and then we justify it intellectually by thinking about the work that needs to be done to help these people and the capability of the organisation in question to carry out that work.

There are two kinds of fake news: one is simply the lies told by Russian troll factories and the American President, the other is a kind of spurious negativity drummed up over quite ordinary events like this film. Perhaps, in the rush to build an education system solely designed to equip us for the world of work, we are forgetting the analytic skills of the humanities and even papers like the Guardian, where this article appeared, can no longer be relied on to give us a straight account of events.

We also have a predilection for putting people in their place, which may explain the country’s lack of an intelligentsia, we don’t like people ‘getting above themselves’ and we find it all too easy to sneer at someone who is known as a singer, but who then gives their views on other subjects of national importance particularly if they enter the political sphere. Artists who do this receive the sound of air being sucked between the teeth as we hiss “that’s political” as if that called into question the art or other cultural artefact.

Or perhaps knocking fundraising always gets a round of applause as our wallets snap shut in relief.

John Baguley, Chair, International Fundraising Consultancy