As seasonal rituals go, the annual Guardian Christmas charity telethon is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. Journalists staff the phones, surrounded by mince pies, mulled wine and nibbles, and readers call in with their contributions.
To your left is Simon Jenkins asking: “Is that Visa or Mastercard?” To your right is Polly Toynbee inquiring: “Could I have your postcode?”. And throughout the day, the journalists-cum-telephonists veer off script, with very English gems like: “What’s the weather like up there?” “Any nice plans for the weekend?” and “Got all your shopping done?”
Having been in America for 12 years, I have only done the telethon twice. And while being in the office on a Saturday is generally not my idea of fun, my experience last weekend proved the appeal is definitely an exception.
First of all there’s the generosity. In 2015, the Guardian asked readers to donate to refugees, and raised a record-breaking £2.5m. This year, with our appeal for child refugees, we look set to beat that total. To hear from hundreds of readers who want to give what they can is not just heartwarming; it makes you proud to think you’re part of a community that cares about the things you think are important.
One caller asked how little he could contribute.
“I think it goes down to a pound,” I told him.
“Well I’ve got £1.34 in my account,” he said. “I’m unemployed and I don’t have much so I’d like to donate £1.33.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Sounds like you could use it.”
“No, it’s OK,” he said. “I’ve got my baccy and my beer and I live with my parents. I’m just sorry I can’t give more.”
Second, there’s the contact. As journalists, we don’t really have much contact with our readers. Indeed, beyond providing an alternative funding model for our journalism, membership is about deepening that relationship. The telethon provides an intensive, immersive experience of engaging with random readers for a few minutes at a time. Those off-script moments – talking about Corbyn, Trump, refugees, The Long Read – gives a real sense of how invested many people are in what we do and what we mean to them.
I wouldn’t want to overstate that point. But like people in most jobs journalists are all trying to get through the day – and so it’s easy to lose sense of what influence our news organisations might bring to bear, or the difference we might make in offering news and views that people don’t find elsewhere.
And finally, it is humbling. Sometimes you pick up the phone and someone says, “Oh I love your work. Thank you for doing what you do.” More often they say: “Oh, I was hoping I’d get Owen Jones. Can you put me on hold?”