Sunday 18 October 2015

The Trickster and her patsy



Sometimes a few of my readers wistfully ask me to comment on broader subjects, as I used to do at the very start of the blog, almost three years ago. Concerts, restaurants, theatre reviews, travel pieces and such general stuff as strikes my interest, not just the relentless, fearless examination of the intellect.

It may have been in that spirit that on Wednesday I watched Parliament TV. I imagine that this is the habitual entertainment of intense persons who wear hiking shoes and sensible anoraks, earnest prophets newly intending to write down the unwritten constitution of this sceptre’d isle, just as soon as they have exposed, with their sharp pencils, the iniquities of governments and the knavish tricks of the Great and Good who have been caught out leading the long-suffering populace into the risk of infection and the perils of war.

Members of Parliament, long aware of the futility of their calling, looked enviously across the Atlantic to their former colonies, and found that US legislators gave themselves something to do by conducting hearings, and severely cross-examining some of the hapless citizens who pay their wages. MPs decided this would play very well on TV in Britain and have now made a habit of grilling assorted miscreants for the edification and entertainment of the public. Being British, it is a somewhat tame affair, rather like being nuzzled by a dead sheep. (The late Dennis Healey’s RIP withering description of debating with the late Geoffrey Howe RIP).

The Public Administration and Public Affairs Committee is the natural habitat of political groupies. The very name suggests it is a cover for something else, but no such luck. The Committee had before them the chief officer and the chief trustee of a charity which had taken at least £37 million of public money since 2005 to deal with “vulnerable” children. The first session lasted 3 hours. I do not wish to abuse your patience, but if you glance at the first 20 seconds of the link below you may get an understanding of what happened. Possibly even the picture above gives you the general drift.

A number of issues come to mind. The first issue is why the Government is giving money to charities. In my understanding of the word, charity means charitable persons giving money to charities for them to carry out charitable activities. If people choose not to do that, that particular charity cannot fulfil its objects, and becomes an ex-charity. Why should Government give tax-payers’ money to a charity, particularly when it duplicates work done by government social services? This government policy is based on the belief that charities can either do the work better, or are doing work that governments cannot do. This is possible, of course, but it leads to a distorted relationship: the government has not hired the charity workers, has not vetted them, does not manage them, and cannot sack them; neither can the government prevent the charity from relying on the flow of government funds to expand beyond its contributor base, which then entraps government into using the charity as an arms-length agency, giving it more and more funds on the “too much invested to quit” basis. Such government-dependent charities then use government funds to appoint advisors for the express purpose of helping it generate more government funds, as well as using the government stamp of approval to bring in more private funds, until the misshapen beast becomes bloated and risks insolvency. In this case the government actually seconded two civil servants for a year to try to save their sinking ship.

The second issue is why politicians are prone to being conned. One needs no special explanation as to why so many celebrities are witless (a pop group is said to have donated £8 million, and other public figures clustered round in credulous admiration), but one expects elected politicians to have some sense of stewardship, as well as a crude understanding of the tricks their opponents play on them. This gaggle or midden of politicos are supposed to be street-wise, able to spot chancers, hucksters, liars and thieves a mile off. Why did they fall for this one, particularly when their civil servants did not, and warned them against further largesse? Did they feel solidarity with other confidence-tricksters, or was there a deeper cause?

Confidence-tricksters are often described as “larger than life”. Flamboyance, eccentricity and public recognition assist them in building up their personal brand, and then the end result is that they are considered “charismatic”.  The confidence-trickster has to be confident in themselves, to radiate confidence at public events and touch heartstrings with vivid stories, in pursuit of an apparently noble cause. (On the day the charity folded the charity leader claimed she had just prevented one of her clients from jumping in front of an underground train). The creation of a colourful persona is part of the con, because the individual’s personal battle with authority takes centre stage, and the administrative and financial details get lost. Robert Maxwell, judged in 1971 “not a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company” bounced back to carry out a even greater fraud on his workers, raiding their pension funds. Being an outsider (different class or nationality) is a barrier initially,  but may help later when used as an explanation for other difficulties encountered. The embattled crusader has a place in British history, and most British people quail at the thought that they have written off a beggar for some ignoble reason, particularly a personal hesitancy about their character, which may be due to prejudice.

A brief history of con-tricks is instructive. In the main they play on greed and vanity. The vanity of being seen to be a good person may be motive enough for some people. Usually tricksters offer things at very low prices, and in their more elaborate forms provide what appears to be independent reassurance. A crowd of other investors is the most convincing reassurance.  The manipulators know that some barriers have to be overcome, so they see the “mark” as being not a total fool. Newton famously lamented he could predict the orbits of heavenly objects but not the future of the South Sea company.

The patsy, or credulous convert, is essential. He or she fulfils the function of having been convinced. Once convinced (particularly when it happens against inner doubts) they go out an proselytize with even greater vigour, bringing new contributors into the charismatic presence. They can also carry the rap when the auditors call. According to this trustee’s testimony, he made very substantial personal contributions to the charity, and encouraged friends to do the same. As far as I could tell from his statements, he did not feel he had done much wrong, apart from perhaps needing to have resigned some years before, rather than having hanged on for 16 years.

The third issue is why some charities get the money and others don’t. I recall a confidence trickster woman who raised money for cancer charities by pretending to be a Duchess, thus communicating to her victims that she was above needing the money herself. Those were the days in which a rented Rolls Royce could still impress the punters. Apart from cancer, the successful cause should be both frightening and somewhat unpleasant: something best avoided. Contributions then become an indulgence, promising salvation. This charity concentrated on children which is a plus (the Spastics Society were advised to do two things to get the money: drop pictures of adults, only showing children; and drop “spastics” as a name, so since 1994 they are called “Scope”). 

Kids Company was a compassion play. The children were “disturbed” and “vulnerable”.  The founder lady had the strong belief that “environmental factors would, ultimately, influence how children developed into adulthood through a type of re-wiring of the brain” and some UCL research seemed to confirm this view. UCL Dept of Neuroscience has done interviews with some of them, finding they report high levels of witnessed violence, and MRI results are expected soon. One paper already out (n=22) suggests detectable differences between abused and control children. Obviously, if these brain patterns could be reversed…. Financial controls were haphazard at best. Cash was delivered to clients, sometimes well into adulthood. The charity leader had effective control of expenditures, and hired more staff than warranted as her empire expanded. (Many charities prioritise staff appointments over fulfilling their objectives, and become poorly-regulated quasi-businesses).

Who were the clients? Of course, specific clients would not be identified if they were receiving public services, but charities enter a grey area: in government benefits departments there are some rules to be kept which can be monitored, but a charity has more leeway, because it is dealing with its own flexible concepts of “need”. The numbers being seen were claimed to be 36,000 by 2011, but apparently this included all the other children in schools where specific children were taking part in Kids Company therapy sessions or activities, which is not the usual way of measuring clinical load. Some, or many, were given cash payments without their subsequent purchases being supervised in any way. The charity had many backers. In the opening sentence of the preface to a laudatory account of the charity Prof Jovchelovitch (London School of Economics) remarked that when she first met Miss Batmanghelidjh she had been “immediately struck by the beauty and profound truth of her simple message”. This is not the usual way of conducting academic evaluations of clinical services. The “colourful” charity leader was fond of meeting Prime Ministers and celebrities, and made sure that these meeting were well publicized.

Is this an example of otherwise intelligent people lacking intelligence, or lacking “social” intelligence? The politicians who clustered round may have done so on the crude calculation that it gave them welcome publicity as warm-hearted and generous people helping wounded little children: virtue signalling. In point of fact they may have been subsidizing delinquents who made their neighbours’ lives a misery, but that was less discussed. Even more cynically, the politicos may have judged that childhood sexual abuse was a toxic issue, and wanted to be seen on the right side of the often rabid debate. Another option is that when politicians detect an unsolvable problem (many children will be badly raised by incapable or unwilling parents, resulting in unhappy and demanding young adults) they lose all critical ability and simply hand over tax-payer’s money.

Deciding whether to contribute money to a charity tests more than the charity of the donor. It requires you to look past wish-fulfilment and the professed good intentions of charity fund-raisers to estimate the realistic probability of those intentions resulting in the desired outcome. Yet another intelligence problem.

Or, if you want a simple rule of thumb, avoid donating to any charity led by someone better known than the charity.


  1. You have been misled by the word "charity". The government increasingly contracts with not-for-profit companies to provide public services, the point of which is that it doesn’t get involved in day-to-day management. Government doesn't do it with contractors who build motorways; why do it with contractors who support antisocial youth?

    Kid's Company suffered from Founder Syndrome, in which an energetic and creative individual does something big that a boring administrator could never do. When the time comes for boring administration, the nice thing to do is to promote the Founder to Life President. Some won’t go and have to have their throats cut. The transition in Kid’s Company was too late.

    I get the impression that there’s something here of the British pastime of bringing down people who are too big for their boots. One day Camila is a wonderful woman working miracles in a spectacular organisation, the next she’s a trickster giving taxpayers’ money to smack heads. Oh, and she criticised people in authority.

    1. Dear Marshall, As you say, Founders often linger too long. Problem with Kids Company was total lack of supervision. Plug should have been pulled long ago. Also, if Govt has a govt road building department, then use them, not contractors. Social service depts already doing this work. Her criticism of those services was a smokescreen: she never kept proper records.

    2. When I qualified as a social worker in the 1970s it was common to do intensive casework with the families of antisocial youth. Now, as I understand it, social workers are restricted to assessment, safeguarding, referral and record keeping.

    3. Dear Marshall, There was a time when social workers did social work, and I am glad you were able to do that! I was told by a Head of Social Work that by the 1990s it got very hard to recruit capable people, and sometimes posts needed to be left unfilled. In recent interactions with Oxfordshire health and social services regarding an elderly relative the social worker was by far the weakest link.

  2. Some years ago we cancelled our standing orders for charities: we decided that too many were either just political pressure groups, or gravy trains for the employees, particularly the senior employees.

    We are inclined now to give only to local charities, where we might hope to hear gossip if there's any misbehaviour. Of national charities the only ones we'd consider supporting are the Lifeboats (are they still OK?) and (it slightly pains this old atheist to say it) the Salvation Army.

    As for Ms Batmanjelly's absurd outfit, words fail me, almost. You'd have to be a grade A chump of Wodehousian proportions to fall for it.

    1. Local charities out to be better. The best thing to give them is a bit of time, particularly as Treasurer.

    2. I've just realised that "outfit" is wildly ambiguous. As it happens, I meant her (dis)organisation rather than the contents of the dressing-up box that she likes to sport.

  3. Taken as organisation, not laundry bag, but an amusing ambiguity, and kills two birds with one stone.

  4. I think with Ms Batmanjelly you had a mixture of two approaches, what Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem called the "riot-on-the street-unless" approach, and a few of the techniques Tom Wolfe described in his essay "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers".

    "...there were so many groups out mau-mauing, it was hard to make yourself heard over the uproar. You practically had to stand in line. It was a situation that called for a show of class. You had to show some style, some imagination, some ingenuity. It brought out the genius in seemingly plain people. Like there was one man with a kind of common name like Bill Jackson. He and some of his buddies had created a poverty organization, the Youth of the Future, and had gotten recognition from one of the E.O.E. area boards. But when it came to summer jobs, the Youth of the Future was out of it, like a lot of organizations. Apparently some people thought that was all the Youth of the Future was, just another organization on the poverty scene, just this Bill Jackson and his buddies from of the block.

    So one morning about eleven o'clock a flamboyant black man in a dashiki turns up at City Hall. And this flamboyant black man, the Dashiki Chieftain, isn't running with any brothers from off the block. He is at the head of an army of about sixty young boys and girls from the ghetto. And even his dashiki--it's no ordinary dashiki. This number is elegant. It's made of the creamiest black and red wool with great leopard-fur cuffs on the sleeves and leopard-fur patch pockets on the front ... and a belt. You don't see a dashiki with a belt every day. And he has one of those leopard-fur African fez numbers on his head, and around his neck he has a necklace with beads and tiger teeth leading down to a kind of African carved head pendant. He comes marching up the stairs of City Hall and through those golden doors in his Somaliland dashiki, leading the children's army. And these kids are not marching in any kind of formation, either. They are swinging very free, with high spirits and good voices. "

    Camilla was a Bill Jackson for the Noughties.

  5. Leopard fur patch pockets.... that's what I will wear at my next lecture.

  6. They'd look good on the elbows of a brown corduroy jacket, too.