Editorial: The business threat to the charity brand

Stephen Cook, editor

The eleventh Red Nose Day did its usual magnificent job and raised more than £37m for Comic Relief on the BBC: some comedy, some heart-wrenching stories and a double dose of Graham Norton. The event has become a national institution and Comic Relief is at the forefront of relieving poverty in the UK and Africa.

It also has the confidence to give to some of the more controversial causes as well as the easier ones, and attracted unwarranted criticism for giving money to travellers' organisations.

One of the tendencies of national institutions can be to dismiss any whisper of criticism. Success can lead to impatience with any dissent, especially if charity is involved. Failure to listen to dissent, however, can lead to damage further down the line. No one is suggesting that Comic Relief is in danger of losing mass support, but there are aspects that have the potential to produce dents in its enviable reputation.

The first is respect for some of the suffering people shown on television.

Is it really right that we should twice be invited to witness a young South African boy shaking and sobbing in his sister's arms as he grieves for his parents? And that a few minutes later we are invited to split our sides at Robbie Williams dressed as a woman and David Walliams of Little Britain calling him a "bloody poof"? Would we accept this if the child concerned was from Southend or South Shields? This is TV's old dilemma about conveying the stark truth to get something done about it. But how far should you go on a show like this, and has Comic Relief got the balance right?

The second is the role of commercial companies. There is mutual suspicion between charities and corporates as the former angle for donations and the latter for publicity and a slice of the charity's reputation. Low levels of corporate giving in the UK suggest that this minuet is led very much by the companies, and Red Nose Day only increased that impression.

At one point, Jonathan Ross was clearly reading verbatim from a company's promotional material, and at another we saw an animated Walkers Crisps packet prancing around the stage. The company's justification was: "Publicity is a vital component in enabling us to raise as much as possible, and remember - people do not have to buy Walkers Crisps in order to donate to Comic Relief." How disingenuous can you get? And again, has Comic Relief got the balance right?

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