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Grinding of axes

19 February 2016


THE aphorism is credited to the Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara, but it is the sort of thing that any number of clerics might have said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” And, as a polemical knock-out, it proved handy at the end of last week’s The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday).

The topic was charities, and, in the context of proposed legislation, it asked to what extent limits should be placed on charities that undertake campaigning deemed to be “political”.

Either your reviewer has grown a thicker skin over the years, or The Moral Maze’s panellists have got softer. Certainly, Michael Portillo is no David Starkey; nor Anne McElvoy a clone of Janet Daley — for which we may all be truly thankful. On the liberal wing, Canon Giles Fraser is willing to admit ambivalence in his opinions.

But the high level of debate was mostly down to the witnesses. They all had axes to grind, for sure, but not so as to deafen us to nuanced argument. Thus, while one of the experts brought in to argue for government withdrawal of funds from campaigning charities was one of those right-wing policy “wonks” who likes “government” spelled with a lower-case, italic, two-point “g”; the other was a leftie who argued that big, corporate charities should not be taking the corrupt shilling of the Establishment.

Craig Bennett, from Friends of the Earth, got briefly hoist on his own petard by invoking the great campaigning work of William Wilberforce — who was not, Portillo then reminded us, funded by government; but both he, and Debra Allcock Tyler, from the Directory of Social Change, appealed to our patriotism by enthusing about a nation of altruists.

The veracity of Câmara’s saying remained unchallenged, however; and we were left to wonder how a charity working, for instance, in the field of social welfare, could possibly avoid occasional engagements with government.

One charity boss who seems not to have had a problem getting through to ministers is Camila Batmanghelidjh. And, if ministers are no longer taking her calls, journalists clearly still are; her media defence continued last Friday on Woman’s Hour (Radio 4) in a 40-minute interview with Jenni Murray.

The Parliamentary Committee report is now out, and was highly critical of the charity; but the Charity Commission has yet to do its work; so there may still be ground to be won. Certainly Batmanghelidjh was not in repentant mood here, and the “sorry” word came only in the form of sympathy, not as any admission of guilt.

The Woman’s Hour crowd are a sensible lot; and the prevailing sentiment among emailers to the show was a practical one: why did Kid’s Company have no reserves? Similarly, Murray’s finest moment here came hard on Batmanghelidjh’s complaint that local councils were being stingy. “But, Camila, keeping within budget is very important.” The wisdom of Polonius, delivered with the imperiousness of a wise old aunt.

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