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Expert blog: Neoliberal November at the BBC: Understanding Children In Need

Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University, discusses the BBC's approach to Remembrance Sunday, the build up to its Children in Need telethon, and argues how this type of programming has essentially replaced the state's role and responsibility to individuals and society.

BBC children in need

November is a remarkably trying time for the critical thinker interested in public service broadcasting in the UK. In the first weeks of the month BBC programming celebrates, almost entirely without critique, the ‘glorious dead’ of the World Wars and other conflicts in the lead up to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. The narrative here tends to involve a distortion of the history of conflicts involving British forces wherein the ‘heroes’ who served often paid the ‘ultimate price’ to protect our collective ‘values’ and ‘way of life’ from the tyranny and brutality of external aggressors. This when war is always economically compelled and its propagandists use messages of moral quest to disguise this primary motive from those who may be killed or maimed in its service and the watching publics.

Instead, it should be recognised that the dead of war on all sides tend to come from society’s most deprived areas and be those who, often lacking in schooling, critical skills and media literacy, are most susceptible to messages about the gallantry of fighting to protect a system that has, rather ironically, been the major factor behind their deprivation. To this end, deaths in war should be met with a deep sense of shame that this grotesque absurdity has been allowed to continue, with anger that lessons of the past have not been learnt, and with contempt towards the governments and other vested interests who continue to claim that this pursuit is underpinned by valour.

The week after Remembrance Sunday then sees the build-up to the BBC’s Children In Need Friday night telethon where celebrities and other famous people from across our society ‘generously’ work for free to encourage the public to make donations to help relieve the deprivation of children whose need for assistance is, more often than not, ought to be the responsibility of the statutory services. Here we should take note of the comedienne Jenny Laville’s viral tweet ahead of the 2019 UK General Election: ‘Remember you can do your bit for Children In Need this year simply by not voting Conservative’.

The BBC developed its Children In Need telethon and cultural engagement format during the early 1980s, with its internationally-focused cousin Comic Relief (usually in February each year) starting later in the decade. Both reflect the institution’s neoliberal pivots over the course of the decade. This was when the Conservative British government under Margaret Thatcher chose to remove the state from its role as the primary protector of many of the most vulnerable in society and focus more on wealth generation. It occurred under the mantra of so-called ‘trickle down’ economics (with great emphasis on the ‘trickle’ part). Thatcher, and her sympathisers who emerged into prominent positions in the BBC during this time, particularly Ian Trethowan as Director-General of the Corporation (1977 – 1982), encouraged changes to programming that included the launch of the Children In Need appeal. In essence, this was about voluntary provision (encouraged through entertainment) to fill gaps left by the removal of the now corporate state from civic welfare.

In congruence to the Thatcher government then, and in support of the similar positions of all future Conservative and Labour-led British governments, the BBC has supported the blanketing of all charity as ‘good’ cause. This when there is a direct correlation between the growth of charitable giving, and that sector’s provision of social care, and the state’s withdrawal from its responsibility for the alleviation of poverty, destitution, vulnerability and ill health. The growth of the charity sector, and society’s almost wholehearted approval of its emotionally driven propaganda, should therefore be considered one of the key indicators of the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony and one of the most significant hurdles to be overcome should we seek a more egalitarian world.

To this end, here in Britain, and elsewhere around the Western world, politicians now present themselves with a disingenuous historical amnesia over the role and responsibility of the state to society. These public officials work within a narrow spectrum of political positions over the issue and appear to consider alternative positions towards charity as being beyond reasonable thought. Donations and charity work are celebrated without critical thought. They are encouraged and even enfranchised across the board with very little consideration over where it is appropriate for the charity sector to operate (and it should take the lead in certain areas of community provision) and where it is the responsibility of the state. Indeed, when charity fills voids left by the state’s unwillingness to engage it makes it even less likely that the state will re-emerge with welfare provision.

Let me be clear about my position here then. I find it abhorrent that some children are reliant upon the charity sector for their basic subsistence, or that anyone (child or adult) with a disability including former military personnel suffering from physical injury or psychological trauma are reliant upon the charity sector for their care (particularly when the state sent them to war in the first place). Issues like these are the job of the state, and the state’s unwillingness to provide these most basic parts of its social contract ought to be exposed in no uncertain terms. Indeed, it is fundamentally dangerous to the well-being of society if the salvation of a potential recipient is based on the popularity of the cause and the ability of a charity to fundraise. Indeed, charity is, by its very nature, discriminatory, i.e. certain causes pull at our heartstrings more than others.

Finally, the structure and focus of Children In Need’s fundraising strategy epitomises this now standard unhealthy reward culture format to charity appeals where donations have become egotistical transactions built on pity and donor empowerment rather than the recognition of the recipient as a full human. If the audience are entertained enough they will give; if their favourite celebrity tells them to donate they are more likely to consider it; if they feel empowered enough or their ego is stroked enough they will give - think how many times you hear, “You can make the difference. Be a hero. Please please pleeeeeease donate. Thank you thank you thank you”. This when philanthropy is best served on a platform of genuine compassion that increases the agency of the recipient and recognises them as a whole human rather than an object or statistic without soul or agency. Instead, in Children in Need the neoliberal BBC have created a cultural event. An entertainment product. One where children across Britain have a novel day at school in exchange for fundraising as an early form of indoctrination into becoming the neoliberal advocates of future generations.

Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications, Nottingham Trent University, UK.

Published on 4 November 2021
  • Category: Research; School of Arts and Humanities