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Charity Papers Over the Cracks in Society

Is charity the best solution to child poverty in the UK?


A child playing being the railing on an estate in East London.Photo: REUTERS/Jas Leha

Almost every day a press release arrives in a journalist’s inbox detailing evidence that someone, somewhere is suffering. These claims are often based on surveys conducted by interest groups, PR companies and charities, and are sent to us to secure news coverage.

It’s much cheaper airtime than advertising.

Of course, our instinct as people is to feel sorry, but our job as journalists is to separate the news story from the campaign dressed up as one. Save the Children’s press release about its historic campaign to fight poverty in the UK deserves the same scrutiny.

They are the UK’s fourth largest charity based on donations with an eye watering high voluntary income of 280,109,000.

They have stature, integrity and a highly skilled PR team.

The fact that this is the first time in Save the Children’s 93 year history that the charity has campaigned to raise funds for children in the UK is a news story in itself for some newspapers. It is, in some ways a landmark moment of its own.

But what else is new or newsworthy about their campaign?

It is true that the poorest are undoubtedly suffering in this recession. Incomes for those working low-paid jobs have fallen and welfare payments for those not working have also been cut. Official figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies show that in 2010 child poverty began to rise for the first time since 1997.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some children are poorly fed – some even hungry. But all this is already known – so not strictly speaking news.

And distressing as it may be to contemplate, but poverty is relative; one person’s poverty is another person’s plenty, as those who contributed to Save the Children’s Every Beat Matterscampaign launched last month will know.

That campaign received very little news coverage here even though it aims to end the 7 million annual preventable child deaths of the under fives in developing countries from largely treatable causes like pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria. Do campaigns about lower levels of poverty in the UK really warrant more of our air-time and attention?

Whether today’s campaign does qualify as a news story, it is most certainly a fascinating talking point.

Some journalists have pointed to the link between Save the Children’s Chief Executive Justin Forsyth and his past as a Number 10 aid to the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a reason to be suspicious of this campaign as a story. Conservative Mps have attacked the charity for attacking the Government in their report; and Labour MPs have been queuing up to talk to us about it.

Meanwhile rival charities are privately concerned that Save the Children is moving into new territory.

One charity chief questioned whether the “begging bowl” was a sustainable solution to the problems of this recession. A head teacher told me that hungry children are deprived because their parents don’t know how to feed them properly – as well as because they don’t have the money to do so.

All these responses are a reminder that poverty has become a political issue; the causes, prevalence and solutions argued over by Left and Right.

Save the Children may have hoped to remind everyone that poverty is about people and that charity begins at home, and they have managed to take the debate out of the inbox and into some newspapers, websites and broadcast outlets.

But the reaction to their campaign is a reminder that you can’t take the politics out of poverty.

Last updated Wed 18 Mar 2015

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