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16 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

The Oxfam allegations must not be used to tighten the UK’s purse strings

The scandal will surely mean be an excuse for Tories to retire their hearts.

By Peter Wilby

Oxfam clearly mishandled allegations seven years ago that its senior workers in Haiti paid local women, possibly even children, for sex. It also seems clear that, in this and other instances, Oxfam cared more about protecting what is modishly called its brand than about ensuring its workers were brought to justice – a pattern familiar from other organisations such as churches and boarding schools.

But please spare me the confected Tory outrage. Right-wing MPs have been sniping at aid charities for years. The party as a whole, however, has been inhibited by David Cameron’s commitment to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7 per cent of GDP, which was made to convince voters that Tories have a heart. Increasingly, it finds this heart an encumbrance. The money could go to the NHS, MPs and party supporters say, although they would probably rather use it for tax cuts. Revelations of orgies involving the most famous aid charity of all – one, moreover, that dares to point out that capitalism directs 82 per cent of wealth to 1 per cent of the planet’s population – will surely clinch the case. The Tories can safely retire their heart.

Big numbers

It was Andrew Dilnot, former chair of the UK Statistics Authority, who first asked me, “Is that a large number?” At the time, he was pointing at a figure on the Guardian’s front page that looked big but proved quite small when divided by the world’s population. I learned from him that the question is always worth asking.

Seven workers left Oxfam after the Haiti incidents. Was that a large proportion of the charity’s 230 workers in Haiti or its 5,000 staff worldwide? The Daily Mail reports 123 alleged sexual harassment incidents over nine years in Oxfam’s 650 shops staffed by 23,000 volunteers. That’s 0.06 per cent of volunteers each year (at most, since some could have been responsible for more than one incident) and 2 per cent of shops (again at most). The Sunday Times reports that Save the Children recorded 31 incidents of sexual harassment last year. It has 24,000 staff working in more than 120 countries. You do the sums this time and decide for yourself if these are large numbers and if sexual misconduct is more widespread in the charity sector than in, say, the Houses of Parliament.

Echoes of the 1930s

I feel a smidgen of sympathy for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail as they face accusations of anti-Semitism. In revealing that the billionaire George Soros was backing the Remain-supporting group Best for Britain with £400,000 – he later added another £100,000 – the former headlined its story with a “secret plot to thwart Brexit”. Another headline described Soros who, through his Open Society Foundations, has supported liberal causes across the world, as “a rich gambler… meddling in nations’ affairs”. The Mail followed in similar vein.

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This language is routine for the two papers. Almost anybody who supports anything they don’t like is part of a “plot” or “conspiracy”. But though neither paper mentioned it, Soros, an American citizen born in Hungary, is Jewish. And the use of such words, as Stephen Pollard, the Jewish Chronicle editor and a Brexit supporter, points out, echoes not only 1930s Nazi propaganda but also language now used by eastern European groups, some close to their governments, that are explicitly anti-Semitic.

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Pollard acknowledges that the Telegraph and Mail had no anti-Semitic intent. We live in strange times, however. The most shocking image of Soros I have seen was on Twitter last year, but later deleted. It showed his head superimposed on an octopus strangling the globe and was accompanied by the allegation that his foundation spends billions on “civil unrest, dividing Americans and suppressing free speech”. The author? Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American property developer, president of a family foundation formed to “strengthen the state of Israel and the Jewish people”, and a council member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the chief pro-Israel lobby group in the US. If he can’t get it right, what hope for British journalists?

What is it good for?

The government has a “Brexit war cabinet”. Since war cabinets are normally formed to prosecute, er, wars, this doesn’t sound right. First, we are not at war with the EU. (Or are we? I stopped following the tedious Brexit drama months ago.) Second, war cabinets should be united on basic war aims. Third, they are usually small. Both Lloyd George and Churchill started with five ministers (including themselves), later increased to seven. Margaret Thatcher had seven throughout the Falklands War. For the first Gulf War, John Major had five. For the Iraq War, Tony Blair had eight.

Theresa May has a war cabinet of 11 and battle, even in the metaphorical sense, hasn’t yet been joined.

Rain on my parade

For its weather forecasts, the BBC, obeying the prevailing demand to marketise everything that moves, has switched from the Met Office, owned by a UK government department, to MeteoGroup, owned by an American private equity firm.

Judging by its forecasts on the BBC website, MeteoGroup intends to justify the corporation’s claim that it will give better “value for money” by throwing more information at us. How much of it is useful and believable? It tells me that, 14 days hence, it will be dry and intermittently sunny at 4pm, the temperature will be 7°C but feel like 4°C, with 66 per cent humidity and an 11mph east wind. Can weather so far ahead be predicted with such precision? The website also tells me that at 6pm tomorrow, when I shall be in the West End of London, there is a 24 per cent chance of rain. What am I supposed to do with that information? Take a quarter of an umbrella? 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist