Today is our national caring day. Across the country, people will be involved in activities – sporting, musical or just plain odd – which will raise money for charity. On the BBC, the famous will be doing their bit by playing the fool, putting on silly costumes and generally allowing the giving, good-natured side of their personalities a public outing.
Children in Need provides a variety of satisfactions. Millions of pounds are raised for the needy. There is a general, therapeutically healthy, act of giving. The BBC gets excellent ratings. The famous earn a wonderful double reward of publicity and credibility: by presenting themselves as essentially ordinary folk who care, they subtly point up their extraordinariness. In the eyes of the public and the media, they gain that special gold star of appreciation reserved for the celebrity who gives back. This connection between the famous and charity is so hard-wired into the contemporary psyche that it is easy to lose sight of how bizarre it often is.
The actor Nicolas Cage embodies the paradox of the caring celebrity better than most. This week, as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, he has been in Kenya, visiting Somali pirates in jail, with a view to highlighting the problem of piracy in the Indian ocean.
Another, more personal problem is being aired in a court in Los Angeles. A case brought by Cage against his former business manager has provided an insight into a world of mind-boggling extravagance. The actor needed to earn $30m dollars simply to sustain his lifestyle, it has been claimed. At one point, he owned 15 personal residences around the world, including castles in Britain and Bavaria, and four yachts, kept for him in different oceans. In 2007 alone, he bought 22 cars, including nine Rolls Royces. There were comparable levels of spending on jewellery, works of art, parties. Something distinctly odd is happening when a man who likes to indulge his every whim in acts of crazed self-indulgence is selected by the UN to visit the poorest countries in the world in the role of caring ambassador.
From the point of view of the celebrity, these highly visible charitable activities are a good deal. Paris Hilton is not just an airhead heiress; she cares about the poor in Guatemala. Geri Halliwell becomes more than an ex-Spice Girl when she visits Nepal and addresses its prime minister on women's rights. Nicole Kidman acquires a new level of gravitas when she is invited to become part of the UN's campaign against domestic abuse.
Perhaps, as a cultural sideshow, these things are harmless. In a fame-obsessed age, they draw attention to people and problems which would otherwise be ignored. Yet when a man with 15 homes and nine Rolls Royces is presented to the world as a moral figure, a role model, then a sort of willed stupidity is being embraced. Did none of those important, intelligent people at the UN suggest that the best way Nicolas Cage could help the needy would be quietly to donate a couple of castles to the cause?
So events like Children in Need offer a confusing moral message to young viewers. If you're a public figure, your worth is not judged by how you behave or live or spend your wealth, but on whether you make the right sympathetic noises when the cameras are running.