Buerk’s Law: celebrities, poverty and infantile caring

In a recent article in The Radio Times, former I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! contestant Michael Buerk criticised National Treasures Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Thompson. Their crime? “…[P]ratting around among the world’s victims.” The journalist who made his reputation through his reporting of the Ethiopia famine in 1984 (ironically helping mobilise the tradition of celebrity engagement in world issues that he so despises) has singled out the two for failing to have an understanding of the underlying issues and the realities of war, poverty and disaster:

“I hate it when feather-bedded thesps pay flying visits to the desperate to parade their bleeding hearts and trumpet their infantile ideas on what ‘must be done’.”

Now I’m torn on this one. As someone whose job it is to teach, write and talk about these issues, I’m liable to be a bit disgruntled that someone who gets a quick briefing, a quick tour of a disaster zone, is then treated by the media as the Oracle of Truth about this famine, that conflict, this refugee crisis and so on.

But my own thwarted desires for global fame and recognition aside, there is an argument that the complexity of global issues of this type (whether famine, war, the mass movement of desperate peoples across borders, or natural disaster) are not dealt with well by the use of celebrities-as-messengers. The reliance on ‘goodwill ambassadors’ and such-like serve to push out the political, social and economic background to a story in favour of the easily digestible, more visually stunning, and more easily solvable version of the narrative.

But is this the fault of the celebrities, or (a) the media, with its obsession towards simplifying the story, and being oh-so-more eager to report when That-Woman-Off-That-Thing is the headline; (b) the NGOs and other organisations who seek to get media attention for their view and analysis through such relationships, at the expense of nuance; and (c) us, who let’s face it, probably do pay more attention when That-Bloke-Who-Sang-That-Song-I-Quite-Liked is the main focus of the piece. The reality is that celebrities are used by NGOs and international organisations because they make it much easier to garner media interest for that particular issue or crisis. This blog, for example, is pretty much whistling in the wind in terms of its reach. But if it was guest written by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or Leonardo DiCaprio, then even its most trite ideas might be considered newsworthy. Whether we like it or not, Famous Person Says Thing has been standard fare for generating interest since, well, since there has been such a thing as a Famous Person.

I find the idea of actors, musicians and so on having an interest in the world actually quite reassuring. And if they get their views publicised more so than others who lack fame, well so be it (us mortals have Twitter). Yes, views might be simplistic, but being involved and caring is surely better than not being so? Most of the time, they are drawing attention to an issue; and where a ‘policy’ or solution is advocated, it is more than likely one suggested to them by an organisation seeking to use their status to push their idea.

Far more problematic, perhaps, is when celebrities seek to use their influence not just to draw attention to issues that might otherwise be neglected, or to voice their own responses to the world they see around them, but to directly push, influence and lobby for policy responses, imposing their own world-view. The well-funded celebrity foundation, for example, which attempts to directly influence policy (based on limited, or certainly partial advice from those they surround themselves with). Those who use their global status to directly meet and engage with leaders and bypass democratic, transparent and accountable systems. Those who use their fame to lambast critics who possess much less capital within the media to get their views listened to and reported fairly; or use their reputation and wealth to take to court those who dare question whether their proclaimed successes really were that successful.

Buerks Law Cartoon

Finally, as for the charge that celebrities such as Cumberbatch and Thompson present infantile analyses of the situation and possible solutions, let us not forget that Buerk himself has received substantial criticism for the tone of his reporting of the 1984/85 famine. Yes, he raised awareness of what was going on, and in doing so mobilised a huge response. And as a 13 year old at the time, I can remember the genuinely powerful emotional response that it generated (if pushed, I can still quote the opening lines). But his narrative was not just simplistic (the charge against Thompson and Cumberbatch), it was potentially misleading. It was presented as a famine caused by natural disaster, the result of drought and failed harvests. Yet even as this narrative was being broadcast, it was widely known that the Ethiopian famine of 1984/85 was the result less of drought (a factor though this was) than the war being prosecuted by the government against the rebels in the north of the country, and its deliberate policy of seeking to use hunger as a weapon of war. Subsequent coverage of the massive global effort by the media of North America and Europe focused on Live Aid, the NGOs, the figure of Bob Geldof haranguing politicians, striding up and down mountains and visiting camps set up to deliver food aid; and the generosity of the public response to appeals from celebrities and NGOs. The politics of that humanitarian response, the flaws, mistakes, bad judgements and sometimes terrible outcomes were sacrificed for the simplistic (I’ll be charitable and not use the ‘infantile’ word) narrative of charity saving lives.

Perhaps we can all agree that disasters, crises and human tragedies need to be reported in their full complexity. But also that, sometimes, the natural response of wanting to do something, anything, of wishing we could cut through that complexity to just help those in dire need, is a sign of our humanity. If that basic human response is infantile, then I for one choose to be an infant.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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