Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: So, it's racist for Strictly winner to raise cash for Africa? Just who is stereotyping now, Mr Lammy?

Stacey Dooley will do more for the continent's poor and needy than the MP's hand-wringing ever will, writes Gail Walker

Stacey Dooley in Africa
Stacey Dooley in Africa
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Stacey Dooley, welcome to your kangaroo court. Just leave that presumption of innocence at the door. And you are advised that anything you say will be twisted and used against you. The charge is: channelling tropes of the "white saviour" when visiting Africa to make a film for Comic Relief about its work there. According to David Lammy MP, who set out the case on Twitter: "The world does not need any more white saviours... this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let's instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate."

Expanding on his remarks, Lammy explained "white saviour" syndrome: "It's a kind of missionary idea and it's deeply problematic, because what it does is it keeps the continent of Africa poor, it keeps people in their place. It doesn't empower them, it doesn't empower the audience."

Hold on there, Mr Lammy. Yes, Africa has been left a colonial legacy, but doesn't contemporary African poverty have anything to do with contemporary African governments? Do they have no role to play in keeping Africa poor?

Obviously not. No, what is keeping Africa poor is Ed Sheeran going to Africa to make a short film reporting on how the money given to Comic Relief is making a difference to regions devastated by poverty. So, let's get this straight. Somehow, it is racist for a winner of Strictly Come Dancing to go to Africa to help raise awareness and money to help those in the direst need?

Except that Dooley isn't merely a winner of Strictly. She is also a documentary winner, whose work is among the most watched on the BBC iPlayer and has drawn critical plaudits - especially for their ability to connect with young people.

She has travelled the world - Russia, Iraq, Hungary and Japan, among other countries - highlighting issues of sex trafficking, child abuse, war, domestic violence, the NHS, the lives of young Native Americans in the shadow of the North Dakota pipeline project, pollution in the fashion industry.

Indeed, she has produced two documentaries about Northern Ireland - Stacey Dooley in Belfast and Shot By My Neighbour - which were remarkable for their even-handedness and willingness to face unpleasant truths.

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Her trademark is that of truly great journalism - Dooley lets her subjects talk without jumping into editorialise and making the assumption that she has the answers and is "the voice of reason". She has that natural interest in - and empathy with - people. A curiosity about how they come to be in their circumstances.

I suspect some of that stems from her own entry into journalism, which was not - certainly by BBC standards - conventional. Raised by her mum, who cleaned pubs on Christmas Day to make ends meet, Dooley left school at 15 and worked as a shop assistant at Luton Airport. At 21, she got a lucky break when she applied and was accepted to work on BBC Three documentary called Blood, Sweat and T-shirts.

She's an unaffected grafter with no airs and graces - the qualities that saw her steal viewers' hearts on Strictly.

So, who exactly is indulging in stereotypes? A young woman who wears lippy and was on Strictly must be a wannabe bimbo exploiting the plight of African children to boost her career and wallow in a self-indulgent buzz of self-righteousness?

Of course, she had obtained the permission of the Ugandan child's parents before posing for the snap. Indeed, she had been filming with the child before taking the picture. So much for the insinuation that Ms Dooley had just grabbed a poor child at random as a prop for her demonstration of goodness.

It seems strange that Dooley gets it in the neck, but not, say, any of the very, very, very long list of white men who have fronted up campaigns to raise money in the West for the developing world. Being older white men, perhaps, they may not be as easy a target, or provide the publicity impact that attacking young women affords.

How deeply offensive. All those people who have gone to Africa to help drill wells, build homes, dispense medicine and implement health programmes - are they, too, perpetuating colonialist assumptions? Perhaps they should have stayed at home and not opened themselves to criticism from the self-righteous non-do-gooders.

It is all very well to mutter about poverty porn and feel smug. But a picture is worth a thousand UN reports.

The image of hungry child - be it black, white, Asian - speaks directly to the human heart.

Besides, could you imagine Comic Relief under the watchful eye of the David Lammys of this world - promoting voices from across the continent of Africa and having serious debate ... hours of hectoring about how it is all the big, bad West's fault in helping/not helping (delete as applicable) Africa, watched by a TV audience somewhat south of BBC Parliament's repeat of the Paperclip Procurement Bill at two o'clock in the morning.

After the triumphal announcement of having raised a staggering £36, we could all climb into our lovely, comfortable beds, while children (and let's not forget Comic Relief helps children across the world, not just Africa) continue to suffer.

The point isn't to have a "serious debate". It's to, you know, actually do something. Sending celebrities out to the world's disadvantaged areas may sound, to over-sensitive souls, crass.

But what are they doing? They are showing - in an accessible way to their vast fanbases - how the millions we give is doing good RIGHT NOW where it is needed.

If - by hook or by crook - Comic Relief gets a few million more quid by having a star visit a famine relief centre in central Africa, isn't that "a good thing"?

But Lammy is a character all right. He refused to make a film about Africa for the BBC, because, he says, he doesn't live there. Better get someone who does to comment on poverty on the continent.

Which sounds very plausible until you realise he is an MP whose job it is to represent people in his constituency who are themselves poor and don't have access to a voice of their own, let alone the vast privilege of an MP's lifestyle which he had been enjoying that for almost 20 years.

We don't hear him suggest that his less-well-off voters simply do their own representing in these matters.

Simply waiting for Western capitalism/colonialism to collapse and the reign of universal peace and moral perfection to begin may keep us pure, but a) it ain't going to happen any time soon and b) it ain't going to help those who need help today, not some unspecified future date.

Stacey Dooley will do more in her own small way for the needy than all the easy self-righteousness of her critics ever will.

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