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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

DBA

£40000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: DBA, London,...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game