|THE ROBUST REPLY
by Libby Purves
This is a piece by the redoutable columnist of The Times published
on March 22, 2005. It has to do in part with the successful blackmailing
of the British branch of the charity Oxfam by a Canadian newspaper
with an editor inclined to neo-Zionism, which is to say the enlargement
of Israel beyond its 1967 borders and thus the further violation of the
Palestinian homeland. For a rather too full account of that episode, turn to
Oxfam GB, £5000, After The Terror, and Medical Aid for Palestinians.
YEARS AGO, I WENT on a seminar for glossy-magazine executives.
Discussing the ethics of advertising pages, one radical young woman
editor announced that whatever the revenue loss, she refused ads
from feminine hygiene products that she considered insulting to what
were then known as wimmin. There was a respectful silence, then a
glum man from Motorcycle Monthly said "Can I have their number?
We'd be glad of the money".
This memory was revived by the latest story of a charity refusing a
donation under pressure from other people's ethics. The Institute of
Cancer Research (ICR) has turned down £30,000 raised by Barry
Atkinson, a shooting enthusiast who carried out a record 148 days
"beating". The ICR speaks of its concern for "minimising pain and
suffering in animals" but apparently told Mr Atkinson that it was
worried about animal rights "activists".
It has suffered from them in the past. Mr Atkinson agreed to give the
money discreetly, but it was still rejected.
Roll back a few weeks to the affair of Maggie's Centres, a charity for
cancer sufferers. It was offered £3,000 from a special performance of
the hit show Jerry Springer --The Opera which contains rude words
and a dream-sequence using images of God, Christ, Mary and
Satan. A small group called Christian Voice warned the charity off- its
activists threatened to protest outside the offices and centres That
would not have been much fun for the patients; more distressing you
would think, than knowing that they had benefited from a musical
enjoyed by thousands and broadcast on BBC Two. The chief
executive justified the capitulation because for the sick "this had the
potential to be an extra battle".
Think what you like about the show: I think it is not actually
blasphemous, since the religious figures are not themselves but
figments of nightmare. You may differ. But, as one doctor sighed
What sort of Christian blackmails a cancer charity?".
I do not think we should complacently assume that this is a one-off.
This loss of £30,000 to the ICR proves that. There are plenty of other
single-issue fanatics who will be encouraged to target charities:
trustees have got to decide how to meet this threat. It may be for us,'
the public, robustly to inform charities that if they cave in to blackmail,
the rest of us will turn our backs. Two years ago was another
troubling case: Oxfam's refusal of £5,000 from Professor Ted
Honderich of University College London, whose book examined the
morality of Islamist attacks and included a paragraph asserting the
"terrible truth" that there may be justification in some Palestinian
violence. Oxfam defended its refusal of the money with strong words
about the value of all life; Professor Honderich believes that it was
scared by a threat from a Canadian newspaper to run a piece saying
it took money from terrorist sympathisers. Muslim organisations have
attacked the charity over this; it is complex, and worth looking up in
more detail than I can offer here.
But the history of charities refusing donations is interesting. I spent a
curious hour trying to find out whether the blackmail tactic so openly
used by Christian Voice really is a new phenomenon. It is. I found
abundant, and unsurprising, examples of principled charities turning
down "dirty money". One can see why the World Wide Fund for
Nature flinched from accepting £2,000 raised by a novelty alligator
race. It is understandable when anti-gambling churches refuse
Lottery grants. Sometimes the sacrifice is great: in Florida in 2003 the
Salvation Army turned down $100,000 from a Lotto winner. Fair
enough: there is at least a direct line from the charity's beliefs to its
self-denial. Some refusals are a bit petulant: in Boston, the ailing
Catholic Archdiocese turned down $35,000 from a lay group, Voice of
the Faithful, which has criticised the Church's feeble response to
child abuse scandals. In Albuquerque a homeless shelter refused
$1,200 raised by a drag show. Here in the 1990's Shelter — whose
business surely is campaigning for the homeless — turned down
£50,000 from a tobacco company. Still, at least the Bostonian
bishops, Shelter, the Salvationists and the Albuquerque drag-haters
were not being bullied.
You could say the same about the African archbishops who have
vowed to reject donations from any Western church that ordains gay
clergy. "We will not", says Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria, "on the altar
of money, mortgage our conscience and salvation." Fine. It's their
choice to let their parishioners suffer. But note, going back to the
original stories, that Maggie's Centres is not a Christian organisation.
It did not itself hold a view on the Jerry Springer musical. It was
strong-armed. And so, in a way, was the ICR, cowed by animal-rights
terrorists against whom our police seem so powerless. And so,
perhaps, was Oxfam: Professor Honderich's view on Palestinian
violence is controversial, but it was expressed with care and thought
and he is a lifelong donor. Principle alone is unlikely to have swayed
the decision; the professor claims that he was told there was
"pressure brought to bear".
This is not the same issue as when charities refuse donations with
publicity strings attached: that is mere prudence. A good example is
Breakthrough Breast Cancer and its refusal to take a million's worth
of sponsorship from Nestle because it believes (though the company
denies it) that Nestle promotes baby milk powder unethically in
developing countries. Here the proposal was for cross-promotion,
and the charity was protecting its image. But in the three main cases
cited above, any of the charities could have taken the money and
simultaneously announced their disapproval of its source. But that
would not have been enough for their attackers, would it?
In a lot of moral dilemmas I happily say "money isn't everything". But
when solid good causes start to suffer from the hyperactive,
self-righteous consciences of every passing bully, we should notice.
For related episodes, see The Fall and Rise of a Book in Germany and
LondonStudent and Ted Honderich.
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