Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian, February 28, 20109
Whatever Stacey Dooley’s report is like, it’s clear the subjects of Comic Relief’s films don’t need celebrities to tell their stories
Bare-faced and clad in jeans, clutching a rather uncertain-looking black toddler on her hip, Stacey Dooley stands beaming in the dust of a parched African landscape. At first glance you could mistake it for a gap year snapshot, destined to be pinned up somewhere in a student bedroom. Dooley is, of course, one of the breakout stars of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, and the picture was taken in Uganda, where she is making a film for the upcoming Comic Relief. Yet as with so many gap year experiences, it isn’t entirely easy to tell who is having the more emotionally rewarding time here: the volunteer who feels privileged to have seen what they’ve seen, or the children they’re actually supposed to be helping.
Which is perhaps why the Labour MP David Lammy touched such a nerve when he responded to the image by tweeting that “the world doesn’t need any more white saviours”, or western do-gooders flying in, believing they are solving the developing world’s problems while blissfully ignorant of the colonial baggage they carry.
It’s a row that has been bubbling under for years, the chorus growing louder every other March when Comic Relief rolls around. If it wasn’t about Dooley, it could just as easily have been about the singer Ed Sheeran, filmed digging into his own pocket on last year’s programme to put a roof over the head of two little boys sleeping rough; or about Madonna adopting children from Malawi; or even the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s desire to take charge of the Thai cave rescue, regardless of the Thai authorities’ wishes. It’s partly an economic argument about the merits of aid versus trade, charity versus dignity, and of impulsively stepping in to help versus listening first to what people might actually want.
But it’s also an increasingly fraught argument about race, and the long shadow cast by colonial history. Celebrity presenters fronting Children in Need in the UK are also often stepping out of privileged lives, and they, too, tactfully avoid exploring the broader political context to the hardship they’re talking about. Yet they don’t provoke anything like the level of backlash Comic Relief does.
For some, of course, the very idea of charity is problematic, a fig leaf for covering up political failure. They’d rather the west lifted protectionist trade tariffs, stopped exploiting oil and mineral reserves, opened borders and freed Africa to trade its way to greater prosperity than make a big self-congratulatory show of handing back some aid money.
But whatever the merits of that argument in principle, in practice Donald Trump is currently roaming the globe threatening to start trade wars and Brexit Britain seems to be moving closer to, not further away from, protectionism. When governments pull up drawbridges, giving money is one of the few things ordinary people can still do that makes a difference. The snag is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to solicit those donations in a way that doesn’t offend someone.
For anyone old enough to remember when Bob Geldof and Bono were practically canonised for Live Aid rather than harangued over their tax arrangements, all this can sound rather exasperatingly petty. The BBC clearly already sees the need to change with the times, having promised last year that it would no longer parachute celebrities into poverty-stricken countries, but would use more experts and African voices. Besides, in order to raise its millions, Comic Relief clearly needs to put more than woke millennial bums on sofas — it has to attract their grandparents too, not to mention people who just wouldn’t watch an earnest televised lecture on the structural causes of global poverty.
The irony is that they must have seen in Dooley a rare combination of stardust and the ability to report from, rather than merely be photographed in front of, challenging environments. For while it was Strictly that catapulted her into the big league, she’s also a documentary-maker who has presented films on everything from people trafficking to arms dealing, someone used to being behind as well as in front of a camera. Choosing her was presumably meant as a step towards the aims of the campaign group No White Saviors, which in criticising the Dooley picture made it clear it doesn’t want to stop white people coming to Africa, merely to stop white people making themselves the hero of the story. What makes that so difficult for some to take is that it isn’t just about asking one presenter to take a back seat, but also all those viewers who unconsciously identify with her.
Since all we’ve got to go on so far is a single publicity shot, it seems frankly premature to judge whether Dooley’s film — said to involve people linked to Comic Relief projects telling their stories in their own words — actually fits the No White Saviors criteria or not. Nor did it necessarily help Lammy’s critique when Comic Relief let it be known that he hadn’t taken up a previous offer to make a film of his choosing with them.
But regardless of who turns out to be grandstanding in this particular case, the broader point is still a fair one, and it’s that wherever possible, complex stories should be told by people rather than about them. When Comic Relief first aired, the idea of dropping actors and comedians into situations well outside their usual comfort zone felt genuinely fresh. But a generation on, the sight of celebrities making weepy “personal journeys” towards understanding poverty has begun to feel more and more crass, especially where it overshadows the people whose experiences they’re meant to be understanding in the first place. Isn’t it high time to step back behind the camera, and let others have a turn in the light?