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The Mirror newspaper reported at the end of October that BBC’s Panorama was investigating potentially embarrassing claims about the charity Comic Relief. The charity has supposedly invested £150m of its donated funds for up to eight years before passing the money on to the causes for which it had been raised. This in itself is not uncommon for many charities, as by investing their money they can ensure every pound donated will go towards the schemes for which it was donated, and any profits made from investment can be used to cover the running costs and salaries at the charities. However, Panorama allegedly has evidence that £14m of this was invested in a fund providing investment to firms accused of unethical behaviour, and behaviour that contradicts the Comic Relief mission – to eradicate poverty and social injustice.
Among these firms is British American Tobacco, which was found in 2008 to be breaching guidelines to get children in Africa hooked on smoking, and has been branded by some as the “unacceptable face of British business”. Also included in the investment are BAE systems, renowned for their arms deals with Chile, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Qatar and others, and forced to pay almost £300m in criminal fines after being accused of corrupt and fraudulent deals around the globe. Other firms in which Comic Relief is alleged to have invested include the pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, who are accused of exploiting people in poverty in India, a nation where nine Comic Relief projects are in progress.
In response, Comic Relief has issued a statement claiming the investment “approach met with the charity’s legal and ethical requirements and contributed to its running costs.” Indeed, the issue isn’t so much that donations were invested, but more that some of the funds were invested, albeit indirectly, in firms whose practices compromise the Comic Relief ethics and mission. The information was also only leaked after the BBC had shelved the investigation.
While the approach may (or may not) meet with the charity’s ethical requirements, it is distinctly at odds with the Comic Relief aims to “bring about positive and lasting change in the lives of poor and disadvantaged people…tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice.” A sustainable investment campaign group argues that there are benefits to aligning your investments with your core values – the aims of a charity do not have to be sacrificed to receive returns on investment. In light of these accusations, Comic Relief has stated that it never directly invests the money itself, but uses the aforementioned fund to invest on its behalf, claiming the charity “can’t control who the funds invest in” – but surely it can influence the funds to invest in more appropriate companies, and if that is unsuccessful, use a different fund with investment interests with a greater affinity to the charity’s own mission.
The Mirror’s source also referred to the axing of the six-month investigation, claiming the show has been delayed once already and “the worry is this investigation will never see the light of day.” Parallels have been drawn between this axing of a Panorama investigation and the axing of Newsnight’s investigation into Jimmy Savile in 2011. The BBC’s Director General Tony Hall has refuted any such parallels, saying that the Panorama Comic Relief investigation “is a much clearer story”, and that he “very much hopes this programme will be transmitted” after the appropriate legal checks, which are ongoing, are completed. He made sure to stress that he wasn’t yet fully aware of the substance of all the allegations being made, and whether they are correct.
While seemingly another scandal that may well be forgotten in a year, the ripples emanating from this issue could have far greater consequences – the Culture Secretary Maria Miller suggested that ongoing BBC scandals, such as this and the Jimmy Savile scandal, not only shake public confidence in the corporation, but also have the ability to tarnish the UK’s reputation around the world, as the BBC is “synonymous with Britain.” Perhaps both the BBC and Comic Relief need to have another look at their policies before demanding more public money to fund their causes.