Can charity ever be a dirty word? We all know the phrase, “you’re only saying that out of charity,” but in the contemporary sense of the word, meaning money freely given to good causes, can it ever be so tainted as to be a contradiction in terms?
Great Ormond Street Hospital – one of the most admired treatment centres in the world, known for the astonishing work it does on behalf of sick children – felt obliged on Wednesday to return the £530,000 given to it down the years by the Presidents Club, the men-only sexual services and good works charity that has since shut down after the Financial Times exposed what it was really about.
Other charities followed suit.
What happened at the Dorchester Hotel was, as Theresa May belatedly pointed out, appalling. The event was not exactly a bring-and-buy brothel. It was more of a tease, like a strip club. But, if accounts by the “hostesses,” are to be believed, it wasn’t far off.
But my larger point is this. Would it all have been worth it if Great Ormond Street had taken the money and used it to save the lives of innocent children?
In one obvious sense, the answer is yes. But once we go down that route, anything goes. What about a gift from Jimmy Savile? After all, he gave a lot to charity? Would that have been alright? Or what about cash from tobacco companies hoping to look responsible in the public eye, or dodgy, Russian-owned hedge funds seeking to move up in the Establishment?
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Money talks. But sometimes what it says is that the rich and major corporations can paper over their misdeeds by making cash payments to Save the Children, Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation.
I shouldn’t exaggerate. Businesses have a right to make a profit, and those at the top of many companies genuinely, and properly, feel that they have a responsibility to help the sick and others less fortunate than themselves. This is a fact and it is to be encouraged.
But let us return to the Dorchester. Until the FT’s scoop (and what a scoop it was!), we were asked to believe that the Presidents Club was a benevolent organisation that worked tirelessly to raise money for Great Ormond Street and other worthy causes. Yes, it was men-only, even in the post-Weinstein era into which we have recently moved. That was a bit odd. And yes, all the guests were either independently wealthy or else wielded not their own but their company’s cheque books. But then, what would be the point in inviting the poor to a charity dinner?
What we didn’t know was that the event was little more than a sleazy grope-fest, in which money was given away almost as a measure of the donors’ sexual prowess (indeed, of their penises, one of which was apparently taken out for inspection). The men attending were not all appalling. Some were honestly there to give money away to people and institutions that needed it. Others, we are told, had no idea what was going on. Like Republican senators in the room when President Trump denounced “shithole” African countries, they saw and heard nothing untoward.
But lots of them were there primarily to have a good time. The money raised, and the good publicity attaching, was just the icing on the cake.
Charity is big business now, closely linked to the entertainment industry. All too frequently, we don’t give money for nothing, we do it increasingly in return for a “benefit” gala at the Palladium, or the spectacle of someone running a marathon or in “sponsoring” a City slicker driving in a wacky races rally across the Sahara. If you want the big bucks, you should agree to do something arduous or else make a fool of yourself in public.
I am all for charity. I should give more myself, starting today with £50 to Great Ormond Street. You should do the same. The richer we are, the more we should give. Big companies making billions in profit should distribute the money on an industrial basis. But it should be because we believe that the money is desperately needed and will be used to make the world a better place, not as an add-on to cheap thrills. The Presidents Club gives giving a bad name.