Henry Porter: Why can't we just accept good deeds at face value?

One wonders what is eating people like this and why they produce such toxic cynicism
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Journalists are used to the pervasive cynicism of the media, the reflex disparagement of kindness and generosity, the suspicion that anyone well known who gets involved in charitable activity is doing it only to enhance their reputation. But even I was taken aback the other day when The Spectator ran an article suggesting that celebrities were cashing in on the tsunami disaster with their fund-raising parties. "The deaths of some 225,000 people have sparked off a party season such as London has seldom seen in the middle of January," wrote Ross Clark.

It nailed my attention because I and group of friends had just given a party in London for three small charities working to rebuild Sri Lanka and Sumatra. It had been arranged in under a fortnight and, with the help of Griff Rhys Jones as an inspired auctioneer, raised £60,000, precisely three times the amount we expected.

Without, I hope, being too dewy-eyed about the evening, I can say it was a heart-warming experience and we all came away glowing at the goodwill we had encountered both in the people who'd attended and those companies that had given us help for free, or at suicidally reduced prices. The party was hardly teeming with celebrities, but those that did come were self-effacing in the way they gave and, it seemed to me, keen to avoid publicity.

After we had packed up the lighting at the end of the evening, a man named Duncan, who had at that point worked a straight 14 hours to put the event on, said he would like to donate his wages for the day to our appeal. I couldn't help remembering this when I later read Ross Clark's little shocker in The Spectator.

"One imagines," he wrote, "that the money raised by celebs over the past few weeks will be put to some good use, even if it is adorning Phuket's rebuilt hotels in gold leaf."

Did he really believe the last part of that sentence, or was it that he could not concede that the money raised by these events will do a lot of good, in our case buying school kits and school tents, repairing fishing boats and providing new nets and engines (22,000 fishing boats were lost in Sri Lanka), building houses and in one instance repairing a harbour wall? The money will go a long way in Sumatra and Sri Lanka where £3,100 buys a concrete house and a good loo for refugee camps costs just £280. There is also trauma counselling run by Plan, the children's charity which we supported that night. I can't think of money better spent.

One wonders what's eating people like Clark and why they produce this toxic cynicism. What makes him seethe with such low thoughts when he hears of people doing a bit of good and having fun at the same time? Surely it must have occurred to him that even if they were showing off and parading their generosity, they were still doing more for humanity than a hack who churns out 1,200 words of derision and trousers the fee.

He's not alone. A few days later Sharon Stone stole the show at Davos when she stood up at the plenary session on poverty to raise an impromptu $1.4m for mosquito nets. She had just heard a UN official describe how 150,000 African children were dying every month because of the lack of nets and thought she'd move things on a bit.

Naturally, she was made to feel an ass afterwards and was liberally accused of exhibitionism, but we cannot doubt that the world is fractionally better off because she stood up and got the necessary money to stop so many unnecessary deaths. Her gesture should be applauded in a time when too many pass the responsibility for the world's problems to aid agencies and governments. That's why in the wake of the tsunami it was so inspiring to see the amount donated by the British public outstrip the paltry sum initially earmarked for relief by the Government.

I'm not sure I understand why the press is so hard on people like Sharon Stone and Bob Geldof, who both use their celebrity to very good effect, and I certainly don't understand why it has become so difficult to accept good deeds at face value. Perhaps an element of the mania for celebrity is envy among journalists, who are in hailing distance of these well-known people but only from behind a velvet rope.

Whatever the reasons, it is a corrosive habit of mind which is totally at odds with the generosity of the British public who see actions and people for what they are rather better than the twerpish fellow from The Spectator.