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Reasons to be cynical, 30 years on

28 November 2014

A contrarian media culture undermines the best of intentions, says Paul Vallely

THE backlash against Band Aid's Ebola record is great news, one development academic said the other day, because it shows that the British public are developing a more mature attitude to aid. Oh dear. What it actually shows is that the jaded contrarianism of our metropolitan media elite has plumbed new depths of cynicism.

Ebola is out of control in countries with failed national health services. African countries where health is well-funded, like Nigeria and Uganda, have contained the disease. By contrast, in Sierra Leone, where the disease is worst, the health service is in ruins - after Western promises of aid have been broken. Ebola is a virus in the global body politic as much as in the bloodstream of its hapless victims. Our ignorant media can't, or won't, see that. Instead of focusing on the politics of Ebola, they have turned their sarcasm on Bob Geldof, who has remade "Do They Know It's Christmas" to raise cash to combat the disease.

The criticism has ranged from the fatuously ignorant to the wilfully misleading. There were complaints that the lyrics were factually inaccurate, as if the offering were a doctoral dissertation rather than a pop song. One paper, lamenting the lack of cultural sensitivity in the song's imagery, then analysed the 1984 lyrics rather than the 2014 version. Others codded up bogus slights and rows with singers not invited to sing on the record, or who declined to participate.

One paper had a page-long tirade about Band Aid and Ethiopia, even though there is no Ebola there. Another confused the original Live Aid concert with the Freddie Mercury Tribute at which David Bowie knelt to say the Lord's Prayer. Yet another repeated the canard that Band Aid cash had been siphoned off for weapons, an untruth for which the BBC had to issue an unprecedented simultaneous four-channel apology.

Where critics did venture on to medical territory, they were just as ill-informed. One mis-reported the Ebola incubation period. Another disingenuously muddled the annual death toll for AIDS with the ease and speed of contagion of Ebola, which is far more frightening to doctors.

Accuracy went completely out of the window. Arguments about aid propping up despots, which are as outdated as the Cold War, were regurgit-ated. So was the line that Band Aid singers were propping up flagging careers, despite the fact that most of them are currently at peak popularity.

Something else was being propped up, however. An internet search on many of the most vehement critics revealed that, until their attack on Band Aid, they had written nothing about either Ebola or Africa for months, if ever. It was as if their assaults, filled with false dichotomies and non-sequiturs, were intended to cover that fact. Other sneerers, who affect, in morally superior tones, to care deeply, seem merely to be attempting to create an intellectually respectable defence for their own inaction. As Richard Curtis once said, there will always be reasons to say no.

Bad faith is at the heart of this backlash. But the British public see through it, which is why Band Aid 30 has outsold all the rest of the Top Five put together. A more apt Christmas No. 1 would be hard to imagine.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.

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