Sunday 31 May 2015

The Coming Tabloid Assault on Charities

A couple of straws in the wind, perhaps, but I have a feeling something's a-brewing.

Exhibit one: Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old poppy seller and giver to charitable causes took her own life after, apparently, being repeatedly pestered by cold callers asking for more cash (she already gave to 27 charities every month) and receiving dozens of begging letters, week in, week out.

Exhibit two: Robert Newman, a 80-year-old pensioner received a begging letter from The Children's Society asking him to cough up a cool £100k over three-year monthly installments. The charity explained this has been sent out in error and was intended for wealthy would-be patrons.

Usually loathe to criticise charities - indeed, most tabloids are only too happy to hop on popular acts of do-gooding, there's a bit of a whiff about this. Yes, Newman was right that some elderly people might feel bullied into handing over the dosh. And yes, it is awful that many charities now rely on "self-employed" chuggers who send shoppers scattering with their aggressive, insincere banter, low paying call centres, and postal missives. Charity now goes where social security policy fears to tread, but that doesn't mean the political economy of the whole set up should get a free pass. Far from it.

Of course, our friends at The Sun and Express are not interested in any of that. So why has this been regarded as newsworthy, especially when the Newman case is all very meh, and the sad passing of Cooke had little, if anything to do with charities (according to her family, at least).

Ever since the National Lottery started doling cash out to charitable organisations in the mid-90s, the tabloids at the time made a distinction between good and bad charities. In the good categories were your military charities, stuff to do with animals and children, and usually those set up in the aftermath of awful disasters. Very much in the bad was stuff supporting the arts and refugees. There was a touch of ambiguity around poverty-based and environmental charities because of their tendency to shade into political questions - witness the periodic whingeing that occurs whenever Oxfam makes the barest of allusions to the systematic inequalities of power and wealth that produces and reproduces poverty. But on the whole, it has been relatively quiet - until now.

What these two stories may represent is the tiniest sliver of a rather large wedge. I wouldn't be surprised at all if, over the coming months, we see more reporting of similar cases and perhaps a few exposés of huge salaries and soirée-ligging on the part of charity higher-ups. Why? Because the question of what is and what isn't a worthwhile charity has to be out into question as the government prepares to forcibly expropriate housing association homes.

One of the most stupid and damaging of the policies in the Tory manifesto, the arguments against are too long to rehearse for a short blog post, but it will mean a number of associations will go to the wall and the process of consolidation, which has seen a few mammoth-sized organisations emerge, will accelerate. Housing associations, however, are (mostly) incorporated as charities and provide more than just a roof over their tenants' heads. Some provide an extra layer of social security and dispense advice about job-seeking, provide adult education and retraining, as well as support for handling big public institutions like the local authority, DWP, and NHS. Clearly, as a growing charitable sector and one that is increasingly important because it helps fill the gaps left by the state, taking them on to force their ridiculous legislation through requires their tame press gophers to do some outriding. Their legitimacy needs challenging, their existence as relatively successful providers of social housing must be undermined.

I'm not suggesting Dave has been on the phone to The Sun, but when charity starts coming in for press flak just prior to a Tory attack on an entire charitable sector, you've got to wonder about timings and who exactly benefits from this confected media scare.


Vinyl Miner said...

Plus charities do not keep their mouths shut, people pay attention to them when they say something is wrong.

cfox said...

I think you are right. The pattern is there for all to see. The press "campaign" against whoever or whatever was going to be victim of the coalition "reforms" are obvious. The first big one was the NHS. This had obviously 2 aims. The first one was to obliterate in people's mind the progress made under Labour, which was extensive. The second was to justify the reforms. Then there was the articles about DLA, pointing out that disabled people were getting big luxury cars paid for by the tax payers. The fact that the sort of car chosen under the Motability scheme didn't make any difference to the amount paid out, as the recipient tops up the payments if needed when the allowance doesn't cover the cost didn't seem to bother the press. That came before the push to reform the disability benefits. The other campaigns were the usual, against social housing tenants to soften voters and make them ready to accept the bedroom tax, immigrants, and benefit recipients. But these are harder to detect, as it is the staple of most of the press.

David Timoney said...

I think you're right, but there is a broader ideolgical turn afoot rather than just some tactical manoeuvring by the Tories.

Witness the number of reports last week that described FIFA as "operating like a charity", with the implication that any institution that redistributes from the developed to the developing world (which is what FIFA does, however badly) is inherently suspect. I'm far from a defender of the odious Sepp Blatter, but when the charge is "there MUST be corruption", then I suspect wider forces at play.

Compare and contrast with the attitude towards the charitable status of private schools. "Gaining an advantage" is clearly seen as less morally questionable (perhaps even "aspirational") than handing over the money of hard-working tax-payers to "others".