Charity press trips: an insider's view

Marina Cantacuzino is a veteran of the charity press trip to the developing world. It's an arrangement that normally benefits everyone involved ...

It was 2000, and I was in Addis Ababa with the actor Rupert Everett, reporting on a trip he was making with Oxfam to raise awareness of the plight of millions of starving Ethiopians. Everett was standing next to a patisserie counter in the Sheraton Hotel when - as I wrote afterwards - "he made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the bizarre juxtaposition of these two worlds ... With a sweeping gesture of the hand in a menacingly affable way, he beckoned governments to 'let them eat cake'."

They say irony never works in newspapers, and sure enough when the piece appeared (in the Times Saturday magazine), Everett's "let them eat cake" line was used in a caption in a way that suggested he really was a latter-day Marie-Antoinette. These things happen, and those concerned usually forget about it. But it clearly rankled with Everett.

The actor has just published a highly entertaining autobiography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, now riding high in the best-seller lists, and it includes a chapter devoted to his Ethiopian visit. The "misquoting" wasn't the half of it. "It was a disastrous trip," Everett writes, "confirming what I'd always suspected. Maybe I just wasn't cut out for charity work. They (the Oxfam staff) all drove me mad with their piousness, and they couldn't stand me."

But it's the section in which he writes about me, the PR, and the photographer who came with us that really caught my eye, and which raised questions about this particular journalistic sub-genre. Leaving aside the matter of Everett referring to me quite wrongly as the daughter of the King of Romania, he has a go at both the photographer - to whom Everett had been very rude during the trip - and the PR. Of her, he writes: "If she had meant for me to seem less selfish, to give a saintly hue to my public persona, she couldn't have failed more dismally."

This wasn't how it was supposed to turn out of course - at least as far as Everett was concerned. I've been on numerous celebrity charity trips - to South Africa with Helen Mirren, to Tanzania with Susan Sarandon, to Laos with Richard Wilson, to China with Alan Titchmarsh, to Mali with Katherine Hamnett - and everyone involved always has their own agenda. There's nothing wrong with that. But as you turn up in your Jeep and drive down a dirt track into another blighted community where the villagers swarm out of their homes hoping you are their salvation, the question that the celebrity, the charity worker and the journalist must all ask themselves is, will these people's lives improve because I am here?

The answer, I believe, is yes- but not immediately and perhaps not to those people specifically. Money is donated to programmes, awareness is raised, and readers start to think of Ethiopia or Laos or Brazil as more than just holiday destination. The process can be fraught though, and you only have to look at the furore surrounding Madonna's adoption of a baby from Malawi to see just how problematic can be the mix of celebrity and the developing world.

Everett found it excruciating that the photographer wanted to take pictures of him next to famine victims. I recall Katharine Hamnett losing her temper with a charity worker who sought a photo opportunity from her as she was handing over a gift of two large bags of salt to a village elder in Mali. Being taken for Lady Bountiful or a celebrity do-gooder was her worst nightmare. "I'm sorry but I'm not here for some crappy PR thing," she said bluntly.

No one likes the idea of it all being "a crappy PR thing", and as a journalist I have always tried to write less about the celebrity than about the issues that their trip is raising. I chose not to describe how one high-profile model I travelled with to an earthquake zone would wander off leaving someone in mid-sentence whose entire world had been destroyed.

But one can't be too high-minded. As a journalist, you always hope that by getting up close and personal with the celebrity - enmeshed in conversation during bumpy internal flights, stuck in cars for hours on end, bleary-eyed over a beer late at night - you'll uncover some gem about their personal life. Mostly it's minutiae. I've discovered that Helen Mirren loves a bargain, Richard Wilson mixes cold baked beans with his lettuce, and that Katharine Hamnett is too much of a "truth-teller" to make a good mistress.

There can be tensions. There were with Helen Mirren. She has done advocacy work for Oxfam for more than seven years (often away from the eyes of the press), and I admire her greatly. But on a trip to Uganda with her, she became irritated with me when I kept asking former child soldiers and girl sex slaves for details of what they had endured. Mirren thought I was being unnecessarily intrusive. I believed I needed the evidence for a story that would shake the reader.

I liked writing about Rupert Everett because he didn't censor himself and he was tenacious. He made us all think. Colin Firth was similar. On a trip highlighting fair trade, he kept questioning how celebrity could be used to make a noise without trivialising the issues. But Everett asked the most provocative question of all: does aid actually work?

There was another side to him too. He wasn't precious about his reputation. In his autobiography, he jokingly refers to the moment when his PR phoned to suggest he did the Oxfam trip: "Darling, I was wondering, do you think you're becoming a tiny bit selfish?" Selfish or not, Everett was the only celebrity I have ever travelled with who didn't ask to check the copy. Perhaps he regretted that.

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett is published by Little, Brown at £18.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Guru Careers: PR Account Director / SAM

£50 - 60k (DOE) + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A PR Account Director / SAM ...

Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Insight Analyst

£32 - £37K + extensive benefits: Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Ins...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?