The Friday before last, Comic Relief donations poured in and millions were glued to their screens, albeit somewhat less than of late. By the end of the night, around £63 million had been raised – an £8 million drop from the last Red Nose Day in 2017. Also down were viewer ratings, averaging 5.6 million – 600,000 down on 2017.
If you are a right-leaning newspaper, how do you explain this? Do you consider if charitable giving and views towards the world have been influenced by ongoing political situations? Perhaps you could analyse the quality of the content, and it might dawn on you that getting former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls to try and sing a Little Mix song is not a magical TV moment. Of course not. You blame a black politician for having the nerve to speak out.
In February, MP David Lammy took to Twitter to view his grievances about social media posts from acclaimed investigative reporter Stacey Dooley, who had signed on to fly out to Uganda and film some footage for Comic Relief. He said that “the world does not need any more white saviours… this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” Dooley responded by asking if the problem was with her being white, and hit back by saying “if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try raise awareness?” Comic Relief defended Dooley and said that they were very happy to have her on board, explaining that Lammy has not responded to their offers to make a film in Africa.
Lammy responded by saying that he has the utmost respect for what Dooley does, and does not question her honest motives, but the kindling had been laid. When a drop in viewer numbers and donations became apparent, the newspapers took it upon themselves to stoke the fire. The Times were one newspaper to directly connect Lammy’s critique with a drop in donations. A searing criticism from MP Chris Philp called Lammy’s comments a “pathetic manufactured indignation” and “absurd egotistical posturing,” demanding that Lammy apologise.
It is Philp who should apologise, for he clearly does not understand his own country’s history. Lammy is absolutely right. The earliest days of cinematography and photography were used in large part to support the colonial doctrine, categorising and typifying non-Western people into identifiable groups founded upon stereotypes and making the white man look like the sun shone out of his backside. What ensured this abhorrent legacy is that due to both the construction of aesthetic norms and the technological limits of the time, such ways of making images became ingrained in the medium. Everything from passport photos to tagging friends on Facebook is about identifying, classifying and in some way relating back to yourself. Comic Relief is no different.
In 2017, Ed Sheeran was criticised for a video he featured in taken in Liberia, for the same reasons that Lammy spoke out about. The white British celebrity swooping in like superman and spare some poor African child from the misery of their existence. What was especially troubling in Sheeran’s case is that the video is almost more about him than the people he was trying to help. Lammy’s point is that African people and others from across the world need to be given their voice, their agency, and capacity to speak. Why can Comic Relief not focus on what people ‘out there’ are doing, and what they think? Are media norms so powerful that we cannot fathom or compute something important without a white person acting as our charitable mentor?
The objection is not about what Comic Relief do. Since they were founded they have raised over £1 billion for good causes both in the UK and abroad, and that is worthy of praise. The objection is in how Comic Relief and similar organisations portray the work they are doing. Images have an unfortunate history of racialised appropriation. Actively combating this torrid tradition would be a step in the right direction when it comes to overturning centuries of nationalist power play.
Image Credit: Chris McAndrew via Wikipedia Commons