“Regrettable”

Source: UK Charity Commission filings

In the wake of the FT’s bombshell report about the Presidents Club annual dinner, WPP’s Martin Sorrell has announced that he’s not going to attend any more. But he’s not happy about it:

“We issued a statement last night saying we won’t support the charity in future, which is regrettable because it is a charity that supports numerous children’s charities and has done a lot of good work,” the WPP chief executive told the BBC Today programme.

In some ways, Sorrell’s comment is even more infuriating than the lecherous and loathsome behavior displayed by the men invited to attend this year’s dinner. Those men were very clear exactly what they were signing up for: they groped the hostesses, asked them whether they were prostitutes, and invited them up to their hotel rooms for sex. For them, the “charitable” nature of the event was never anything more than the thinnest of veneers: an excuse to behave despicably in a private setting where no one dreamed that the hostesses had any kind of mind of their own, let alone might be a reporter for the Financial Times.

Sorrell, however, thinks it’s “regrettable” that he’s not going to support such depravity in future. Won’t anybody think of the children?

No, Martin, it’s not regrettable at all. What’s regrettable is that you willingly participated in this sexist bacchanal for many years, and that you only stopped when you were publicly outed as a key enabler.

What’s also regrettable is that, somehow, it is still acceptable to refer to the Presidents Club as primarily being a charitable organization, which just happens to raise most of its money at an annual event. Rather than the truth, which is that it’s an old-fashioned debauch for the British upper classes, so indefensible on its face that the only way it can even survive is by trying desperately to paint itself as a force for good rather than evil.

Certainly, if the men attending the dinner really wanted to funnel their money to children’s charities, there are thousands of better ways of doing so. Check out the chart at the top of this post, which I put together from UK Charity Commission data. For at least five successive years (I don’t have data going back further than that), the Presidents Club spent more on its annual event than it gave away to charity. That alone should give a pretty good indication of where its real priorities are.

This is, clearly, just about the most inefficient way possible of giving money to charity. (See also: Eric Trump.) If Martin Sorrell or anybody else wanted primarily to help children, they wouldn’t be overindulging at the Dorchester first. But of course that’s not what they primarily wanted. Just as in the Eric Trump case, children’s charities were chosen mostly because the cause is utterly inoffensive: it’s a way of giving vaguely “to charity” more than it reflects any kind of specific desire to help a certain cause.

One of the foremost children’s charities in the UK, Great Ormond Street Hospital, has already announced that it will return all the money it has received from the Presidents Club. Normally, I would have mixed feelings about such a move: Great Ormond Street is a much better place for the money to be than the Presidents Club bank account whence it is returning.

In this case, however, there’s a good chance that Great Ormond Street can start a broader trend of children’s charities (or any charities, for that matter) refusing any money from the Presidents Club. If no one will take their money, then the thin ice they’ve been skating on until now will crack beneath them: you can’t have a charity dinner which can’t give any proceeds to charity. And if this particular dinner finally came to its long-overdue end, that wouldn’t be regrettable at all. It would be a triumph.

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