Worthy causes a risky business for stars
Fronting a charity campaign can also be a PR gamble, as Joanna Lumley found out, writes Sarah Caden
Published 14/03/2010 | 05:00
Joanna Lumley once told me how, when she was a child growing up in Kashmir, her parents had a memorable means of keeping certain conversations private. If they thought she or her sister were listening when they shouldn't, Lumley's mother spoke to her husband in Urdu, and he answered her in Gurkhali, the language of the Nepalese men he served with in the British army's Gurkha Brigade. She had no idea what they were saying, but it made up the music of her childhood memories and stayed imprinted on her mind, along with an affinity with the Gurkhas that lasts to the present day.
Last week, as an inquiry was ordered into payments made by retired Nepalese Gurkha soldiers to a charity linked to Lumley, which bought them advice on moving to Britain when that same advice was available for free in Kathmandu, there was no question that the actress had done anything wrong. She had, after all, last spring become the attractive, much-liked and terribly English face of a long-running campaign that was never either cute or sexy, one that sought to allow the Gurkhas who had served in the British army the right to reside in the UK.
She confronted the Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, in a BBC studio, stalking around after him until he graced her with an impromptu press conference; she marched with the Gurkhas in London; she was ultimately named a goddess in Nepal after the campaign was successful and she was given huge credit for raising its profile. And on Lumley's part, there is no doubt that her efforts were sincere. Further, there is no doubt that she did anything but a good turn.
It was not Lumley behind the £500 bill given to some Gurkhas -- which could amount to their life savings -- for advice that was also given out free of charge by a UK government-funded office in Nepal. It was not Lumley who allegedly suggested they would get houses and state benefits in the UK when they arrived. It is the case that the charity at the centre of the new inquiry was the one which brought the actress to Nepal last year and it is true, as "irritated" UK Defence Minister Kevan Jones said last week, Lumley has been "deafeningly silent" since things soured, but it's not hard to understand the embarrassment and frustration that may lie behind that silence.
Last weekend it emerged that the charity Icross Ireland -- the Irish branch of the organisation that supports Aids sufferers and orphans in Africa as Icross Kenya -- was to wind down operations. Irish Aid, it was reported, had become concerned about the charity almost three years ago and a recent audit had highlighted almost €100,000 of government-donated funds that could not be accounted for in the spending on the ground in Kenya. Icross Ireland, in winding down, paid back that money, as well as donating monies to other charities and returning recent donations, but, it was reported, Icross Kenya was to continue its business under Dr Michael Meegan. Irish-raised Meegan, who was Person of the Year in 2003, refuted the charity's statement that "concerns about financial impropriety and allegations of a 'personal nature' against Mike Meegan" were behind the dramatic end to a charity that had plenty of well-respected and star-studded support over the years.
Not only was Elton John a supporter of Icross, but so was Dr Garret FitzGerald at one point, and, through the Noughties, their fundraisers were attended by the well-heeled, with the likes of Chris de Burgh, Rosanna Davison, Lorraine Keane and Andrea and Caroline Corr happy to be photographed at their events. And why wouldn't they? It was a good cause -- and the people in Ireland, at least, remain unblemished -- and there is a will on the part of celebrities to put their weight, their ability to draw attention to a good cause, to good effect. They know from the likes of Bono how there is power in fame that goes beyond the power to earn personal wealth and status, and, even during the easy Celtic Tiger years, they counted their blessings. And everyone did it, everyone with the least bit of stardust was invited to help the cameras flash at a charity event and, in the case of Icross, many entered into it with good intentions but, possibly, little idea of the nuts and bolts of the business. Which is, of course, the kind of trust that has come back to bite Joanna Lumley. In her efforts to do good, the actress -- who is involved with up to 60 different charities -- now has drawn a degree of bad press to the Gurkha campaign that is almost in proportion to the good attention she won it last year. If she weren't involved, after all, the legislation might not have gained momentum, but neither would there be the same fuss over alleged wrongdoing now. Her heart was in the right place, still warmed by childhood memories of the Gurkhali tripping off her father's tongue, but charity is more than show business, particularly in these tougher, less forgiving times.