House of cards

Charities are useful, just watch House of Cards

26 February 2015

House of Cards—in turns both the most compelling and the most ludicrous show on TV—is back tomorrow. Political junkies are weak at the knees. And it even finds a way to appeal to the charity geek in me.

Kevin Spacey’s President isn’t the real star of the show; it’s his wife. Glowering and dangerous (and occasionally wracked with doubt), Clare Underwood is the architect of her husband’s rise to power. So much of this rise is orchestrated through her charity, the non-profit Clean Water Initiative, which both mythologises the couple’s generosity and wins them a seat at the table among Washington’s good and great—proving that a reputation for philanthropy can be very handy.

You don’t need to rack-up crimes on a similar scale to the Underwoods (a couple of murders and counting) to see that when people invoke charities, they aren’t always focused on doing good. Back in the real world, people do grab for charitable activities when they find themselves in a spot of bother.

Fortunately, charities and the public aren’t always so easily fooled. Here’s my short, grim hall of fame:

Dapper stops laughing. Not everyone was laughing at the misogyny and dodgy sound effects that passed for Dapper Laugh’s Christmas comedy album. Under attack for this, and then later for his sexist TV series and on-stage rape jokes, he took refuge behind his charitable intent. ‘I made this to raise money for the homeless’, he tweeted indignantly—only for journalists to expose the pitiful level of his supposed generosity, then uncover more evidence of sexism, and finally bring the curtain down on the whole sorry business.

Mike Read & his ‘Calypso Song’. Mock-Caribbean accents are always a poor idea. Once they are linked to an ascendant political party and a retired celebrity, they are a poor idea guaranteed to command media attention. So enter ex-Radio 1 DJ, Mike Read, who turned his hand to a song celebrating UKIP (sample lyric, delivered in Jamaican patois: ‘Leaders committed a cardinal sin / Open the borders let them all come in / Illegal immigrants in every town). In the face of controversy, the politicians scrambled to point out that profits were going to the British Red Cross—only for the Red Cross promptly to refuse the funds, citing its work with refugees around the world. With that the news story died, mercifully along with Read’s musical tribute.

How to hide behind half a billion dollars. Exposing cheats in sport is, sadly, not that rare. But exposing Lance Armstrong as one of the biggest in sporting history—seven Tour de France victories, each and every one won under the influence of performance enhancing drugs—was a massive deal. The obligatory confessional with Oprah followed, and more recently a sit-down with the BBC, during which Armstrong played his trump card: he may have cheated, but in the process the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised half a billion dollars for people with cancer. Doesn’t that count for something? Well yes, for cancer survivors and their families. But not for Armstrong. Even $500m hasn’t been a big enough smokescreen to save his career.