How we revealed bad investments by Comic Relief - and the comedy establishment turned against us

The film-maker Chris Atkins describes his extraordinary legal battle to screen a "Panorama" exposé of dubious investments from British charities – and the ensuing backlash from celebrities including Lenny Henry, Emma Freud and Duncan Bannatyne

When our Panorama investigation into British charities finally made it to air this week, its revelations about Comic Relief’s investments triggered a huge amount of public anger. The result helped break one of the great taboos in British life – that you can’t criticise charities or you will be responsible for the deaths of children.

When we started looking at Comic Relief’s finances this year we were astonished to see that the charity, which is sitting on a cash pile worthy of a FTSE 100 company, was holding millions of pounds of investments in alcohol, arms and tobacco. We were alerted by a member of the public, the irrepressible Andrew Goodwill, who had been pursuing this for several years (much of the information was sitting in the charity’s 2009 accounts).

The story had been passed over by a dozen or more news desks who told Goodwill they would not attack such a loved British institution. In 2009 the News of the World wrote up the story but it was apparently spiked – the rumour in the newsroom being that the Freud/Murdoch nexus was to blame (the charity’s co-founder is Emma Freud, whose brother Matthew is married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth).

Why did it take another four years for the story to come out? I think the media has been scared to criticise these organisations as they do good work and command public trust. This has, in my view, allowed some of the big charities to see themselves as beyond criticism.

This was apparent when the Panorama team first asked questions of Comic Relief back in September. Keeping within BBC editorial guidelines we sent the charity a list of questions about its investments. We wanted to know which managed funds it was using to invest its publicly donated money. Comic Relief had changed the way it presented its accounts since 2009, so we couldn’t see where it had invested its assets. We thought this was a reasonable thing to ask, particularly as Comic Relief claimed it believes in transparency on its website.

In response they refused to say where the money was and instead hired lawyers at Harbottle & Lewis, who deluged us with legal threats for the best part of three months. Their case was, as I understand it, that airing criticisms of Comic Relief would put people off donating, that their aims are so broad as to make investing in a way that avoids conflicts needlessly restrictive, and that it would be too time-consuming to list their portfolio (astonishing for an organisation that is sitting on a quarter of a billion pounds of public donations).

Given the close connection between the BBC and Comic Relief (they share several senior figures) there was much muttering from on high about the legitimacy of the investigation. But Tom Giles, our editor, forced the show on air and, after much legal wrangling, we were eventually given a transmission date. Comic Relief kept up the legal threats until the very end, and the day before broadcast they ran pieces in The Times and The Guardian stating that the law compelled them to hold shares in a portfolio that brought the biggest returns (even though the Charities Commission has said this is not the case).

On the day of transmission all hell broke loose. We were desperately trying to finish the film, but could see that the overwhelming public reaction was outrage over what the charity had done with its money. It is not hard to see the inherent contradiction in Comic Relief raising money to fight alcohol abuse, and then investing that money in shares in a company that sells alcohol. Emma Freud valiantly tried to defend its position, tweeting at donors that it merely invested in blue-chip funds, in the same way that the BBC’s pension fund is managed.

This argument is full of flaws – pensions are purely profit vehicles, there is no ethical conflict given that the BBC pension fund hasn’t campaigned against alcohol abuse, and the BBC pension fund is fully transparent. Angry donors asked Ms Freud which managed funds Comic Relief had invested its money in and she refused to answer. She agreed with a tweet that Panorama would have blood on its hands for harming donations (though she has since deleted her reply).

Kevin Cahill, Comic Relief’s chief executive, stumbled unprepared on to World at One on Radio 4 to try to defend the indefensible. He started by saying (rightly) that his investments were lawful. He then tried to blame the regulator, saying that the Charities Commission needed to give better advice on ethical investments. Then he revealed how that very morning he might have had a Damascene moment and learned that ethical investments could match and even outstrip normal stocks.

I was pretty baffled by this claim, given that we had pointed this out to Comic Relief in several legal letters in our marathon correspondence. Mr Cahill eventually said the charity would review its investments, though as yet we have had no details on who will conduct the review, what form it will take and whether it will be published.

Despite Mr Cahill acknowledging the criticism, Lenny Henry promptly issued a statement claiming: “Attacking Comic Relief takes desperately needed support from children".

I got into a bizarre twitter spat with the Comic Relief trustee and investment guru Duncan Bannatyne (whom we doorstepped in the film), who tried to argue that supermarkets sold tobacco, so investing in tobacco manufacturers was equivalent to investing in supermarkets. When I pointed out that Comic Relief doesn’t campaign against supermarkets but does fund TB programmes, he told me I was “content to damage needy kids in Africa”.

Emma Freud, Lenny Henry and Duncan Bannatyne seemed to regard Comic Relief as above criticism because it does good things. Its climbdown should remind other worthy charities that they must listen to the people who generously hand over their hard-earned cash on trust. That trust must be repaid on demand.

War of Words: Chris Atkins' Twitter exchanges

Chris Atkins and Duncan Bannatyne exchanged tweets on Tuesday after "Panorama" was screened

Duncan Bannatyne

@scatkins Ah, but supermarkets sell cigarettes, thus funding cigarette companies, so how do you justify that please?

Chris Atkins

@DuncanBannatyne Not an ethical contradiction with Comic Relief’s aims. Don’t think public would be disgusted with it.

Duncan Bannatyne

@scatkins It is the same contradiction. You back companies that sell cigarettes.

Chris Atkins

@DuncanBannatyne Simple test – what would alienate donors? Tobacco companies yes, supermarkets probably not. If in doubt ask the public.

Duncan Bannatyne

@scatkins So, to you ethical is what alienates donors. Nothing more nothing less. You are very sad.

Chris Atkins

@DuncanBannatyne In this context ethical investing for charities is about alienating donors. You shd really read Charity Commission guidance.

Duncan Bannatyne

@scatkins I am going to block you in 2 minutes because you are a bully who is content to damage needy kids in Africa.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015