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Coffee House

How not to defend the charity sector from criticism

4 February 2016

12:24 PM

4 February 2016

12:24 PM

If you wanted an interview that summed up what is wrong with the charity sector at the moment, you’d struggle to find a better one than Sir Stephen Bubb on the Today programme this morning. Responding to the Sun’s report on Age UK partnering with E.ON to sell expensive tariffs to elderly customers, the head of Acevo decided to attack the Sun for its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, something it has apologised for and which took place when most of its current journalists were still at school. Unfortunately Bubb called Hillsborough ‘Hillshead’, which suggests he has a dodgy track record of remembering mistakes that newspapers have made, unless he was talking about a story about the 1982 Glasgow Hillhead by-election that he had a particular problem with.

He then added:

‘I’m getting very worried about the number of charity-bashing stories there are, so, you know in your introduction you talked about Age UK in the dock. This is an extraordinarily good and important charity, it works locally, it does incredible work with older people, and I think this drip-drip of stories which the government then seem to latch onto, join in the condemnation before we know the facts, that’s very damaging to the sector as a whole.’

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He then conceded that he wouldn’t be happy if it turned out that elderly people weren’t getting the best deal, but defended Age UK’s approach to the energy tariffs, and said they were open to the deal being scrutinised. So what’s the problem? ‘Charity-bashing’, apparently.

His whole approach, defending Age UK as a charity that does good work before complaining about stories suggesting that some of its good work could be better, is typical of the moral high ground complex that afflicts charities, political parties and other institutions from time to time. The Church, for instance, was often able to ignore scandals because of the conviction of many involved that it was ‘doing important work’. Political parties often argue that their policies cannot be questioned because they have decided that they are good and that their party occupies the moral high ground and should therefore never be questioned. Charities undoubtedly set out to do good work, but because they are staffed with human beings, they too are capable of doing poor work, as Miles Goslett’s coverage of Kids Company in the Spectator has shown. Indeed, just as scrutiny of political parties and governments aims to stop them from getting away with poor practice, so scrutiny of charities will help them work better too.

Perhaps Bubb is worried that the public will stop donating money to charities if they repeatedly appear in the spotlight. And why might people stop doing that? Is it because charities aren’t living up to the expectations of people who spend months training for marathons in memory of someone they loved? It’s much easier to blame the media for writing about bad practice than it is to blame the subjects of those stories for indulging in it. But in the long-run, demanding that the media only praise the superior morality of the voluntary sector will do that sector and those it aims to serve no good at all.

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