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Sunday, 17 November 2013

My Problem with Children in Need

Pudsey Bear: the 'Children in Need' mascot

Last Friday the BBC ran their annual 'Children in Need' appeal to raise money for children and young people in the UK. According to their website, the 'Children in Need' vision is 'that every child in the UK has a childhood which is safe, happy and secure [and which] allows them the chance to reach their potential'. This year, nearly £32 million was raised on appeal night, as the British public watched a series of heart-wrenching films alternating with celebrity appearances, songs and features.

'Children in Need' is something of a British institution and I have watched it all my life. But it is only this year that I have begun to think critically about both the nature of the appeal, and the methods they use. Their aim is a laudable one, but shouldn't a happy, safe and fulfilling childhood be the birthright of every child? Why are we depending on the good-will of the British public to make this happen? Shouldn't it be up to the government to fund these services? Many of the projects featured on Friday's programme seem pretty crucial to me: hospices, bereavement counselling and assistance dogs don't feel like luxuries. They should be at the centre of a joined-up welfare system which ensures that every child is given what they need to achieve their potential regardless of where they live or their family's income. (Not to mention the problematic focus on the UK when children are dying all over the world right now).

Like guide dog puppies, children are hugely photogenic. It is easy to use sad music, well-chosen words and tragic images of cute children to guilt-trip the British public into donating a few pounds. Viewed critically, the 'Children in Need' appeal might be seen as a masterpiece of insidious manipulation. People give money because they feel sorry for the brave children who are struggling with truly terrible afflictions. For the next twelve months we are comforted by the thought of our altruistic act of giving and handily forget about the terrible unfairness of a welfare system which isn't doing the job it was surely meant to do. Giving makes us feel better, and there is no doubt that people are benefiting from the donations we make. Giving solves short-term problems but it does not necessarily help in the longer term. Charities are only as strong as their bank balance. If the money dries up, the projects vanish. This is why these services need to be centrally funded in a sustained and sustainable way. Rather than encouraging big business through enormous tax breaks, the state should pour as much money as it possibly can into making sure that every child in the UK automatically has a happy, safe and fulfilling childhood.

Another issue that 'Children in Need' conveniently forgets is the question of what happens to these children when they turn 18. Adult welfare and social care is woefully underfunded in this country and it is being cut dramatically even as I type. As well as (or instead of) giving money to 'Children in Need', please consider signing the WOW petition which calls on the government to completely rethink their welfare policies and priorities. Sick and disabled adults are much less photogenic than their younger counterparts. Yet they are just as much, if not more in need. I wonder how many disabled children featured on 'Children in Need' in the past are now disabled adults who are struggling because of government cuts and punitive welfare reform. Now that would be a documentary I'd like to see.

I have always felt a special bond with Pudsey, the 'Children in Need mascot. After all we both have an apparently inoperable eye-condition which doesn't stop us smiling. But increasingly I don't like  what he stands for. He uses the language of tragedy, pity, bravery and sympathy to get the British public to happily pay for services which our government should be providing. And he uses photogenic images and tear-jerking music to blur our critical judgement so that we stop asking why.


  1. Hello Hannah, I am from the Mental Health Resistance Network and we are campaigning against austerity and in particular Welfare Reforms. We work closely with other disability campaigning groups. "Children in Need" ties in nicely with this government's emphasis on the idea of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Many people who live with mental health difficulties have had traumatic or abusive childhoods yet in adulthood they are further abused by both the psychiatric system and now the Welfare system. For example, it is not uncommon for people who have suffered sexual abuse in childhood to develop addiction problems. The widespread hatred of child sexual abuse is quite correct, but when these children reach adulthood and become addicts, they are treated with no compassion, and are now increasingly even being turned away from foodbanks. To me it's like the family who buys a cute little puppy that they all adore until it becomes a bit older, less cute and more like hard work, when they take it on a drive along the M1 and throw it out of the window at 80 miles an hour. Now, with more and more parents distressed by poverty and at breaking point, more and more children are at risk. Thank you for your article and best wishes, Denise McKenna.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments.

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  4. Well said and really well put, instead of charities showing what we could help, they should also show what their money has helped, for example a before and after shot.

  5. I said exactly the same to my wife the other night, though not so eloquently. I have just returned from Oxford eye hospital where I have been treated for a similar condition to that from which you suffer for the past ten years, ie totally blind in my left eye and only about 25% vision in my right eye. I have been treated basically in the same way (drops) for all that time, and wonder what advances have been made in treating the condition. Surely we should have a Pensioners in Need telethon to raise money for research into eye problems. I still have not had a reply from Dr Hicks regarding the special "glasses" you wrote about recently...

  6. I get the idea behind your criticism and agree he might be used as an object of tragedy, pity, bravery and sympathy but I also think when speaking to the general public and uneducated, there needs to a" thing" to start the conversation and a beginning. Our friendly bear could be just an icon for a beginning and he is young bear and have amblyopia and strabismus treatment and is patching in hope of saving his remaining vision from deteriorating further as he matures .It could be his ear, or stitches that are close to his eye?
    Surely that could be a positive icon for an organization ensuring awareness and growing skills for cHildren in need- what ever their need is and with what ever training and assistance they need to to be happy individuals getting on with their lives.
    I am told by relatives my attitude of glass half full can be annoying and could be seen as condescending but if people trying to educate those who know nothing and dont have a starting place of a conversation that makes people think and create awareness, how else do we begin? The better than nothing starting place is a starting place.. and I admit I bought a bear