You can be too complacent about compassion

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It's easy to make jokes about The Night of Comic Relief (BBC1) and fortunately most of those involved did. So if you were inclined to sit at home and split hairs about motives, they had a gag ready for you, nicely calculated to scorn those with prissy consciences.

"Your money makes a fantastic difference to sad people like her," said Jennifer Saunders, urging you to meet one of the programme's hourly fund- raising targets. The notional goal wasn't a water-purification plant or ploughs for Somalia, but a snog for Dawn French - if the money topped a million, Hugh Grant was going to lay down his lips for charity. Dawn shuddered ecstatically, raced for the nearest camera and did a fine parody of the full-eye-contact, I'm-really-really-moved appeal. Earlier in the evening your generosity had been tweaked by the equally worthless cause of getting a cowpat dropped on Bianca from EastEnders.

For those given to moaning that the corporate sponsors only deliver large cheques in return for even larger name-checks, Alan Partridge was on hand, haplessly trying to whip up an air of zany carnival in an outside broadcast from Norwich. After three dutiful mentions of the Cromer Tyre, Exhaust and Clutch Centre, he is so disgusted by the meagerness of its donation that he rips it up and attacks the company on air. These are confident jokes, evidence that those who take part have thought about the more cynical responses to Comic Relief and, I'm glad to say, treated them as a laughing matter. Perhaps next time someone will have the nerve to lampoon the most sacrosanct aspect of the broadcasts - the conjunction of slow-motion footage of large-eyed children with a particular sort of keening pop anthem. It can't be long, surely, before K-Tel offers us "Black Babies - 20 great wallet-opening hits". Chris Evans edged towards it, announcing after one short film that scientific research had proved that "lumps at the back of your throat simply disappear if you phone in and pledge some money".

Of course the films are calculated, but in a way that hardly seems very troubling. They work both to arouse your sympathy and diminish prejudices. In earlier broadcasts they have been instructive about the causes of third-world poverty; here they were determined to contradict the image of charity as a hopeless cause in aid of the helpless - the pictures were mostly of labour and ingenuity and achievement, not despair. And I don't understand the objection to comedians fronting these reports. The task at hand is the diminishing of conceptual distance between people, for which the best tool available is a personal visit by proxy. It makes sense to use the most universal acquaintances the audience has. Besides, professional reporters would do it less well; to watch Victoria Wood not trying to make you laugh, as she details the rigours of life in a time of drought, is to see her off duty, with a layer of performance peeled away.

In the end, anyway, it's not a complicated issue. You really have to be fabulously complacent about the world's available stocks of compassion to believe that we can lightly dispense with this admirable contribution.

Slightly more conventional images of third-world poverty were delivered in Correspondent (BBC2), in which Maggie O'Kane visited the slums of Haiti. Her particular speciality as a reporter is moral indignation, which she wields with alarming recklessness against torturers and murderers. This week Maggie "You're a psychopath and you make me sick to my stomach" O'Kane tracked down a former secret policeman, alleged murderer of many of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters and living a life of leisure in a small village. "You're finished," she told him with understandable contempt, but the whole burden of her report was that he wasn't.

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