Captain Tom, “Perseverance Porn” and Journalistic Responsibility

An exploration of what the death of Captain Sir Thomas Moore has highlighted, by Joshua Butler

The death of Captain Sir Thomas Moore, commonly known as Captain Tom, earlier this month was really thought provoking for me personally. During the Second World War, he fought in Myanmar; the same place that my own Grandfather was mobilised, who’s life was irreversibly changed by Dengue fever, the same disease Captain Tom caught during the conflict.

Whilst hearing about that definitely made me think, the thing that interested me was the extensive coverage that Captain Tom garnered over the last 10 months since he began his walk to raise money for the NHS. During the early stages of lockdown here in the UK, and as Captain Tom approached his 100th birthday, he began walking 100 lengths of his 125 metre long garden to raise money for the NHS, aiming to raise £1000 before he became a centenarian. During a time of fear and sadness surrounding COVID, and the great stresses the NHS was under; Captain Tom’s efforts were heralded by many as the sort of inspiring thing they needed during tough times, and his fundraising efforts became an international media event. By the end of his walk, he had raised over £32 million, with a further £6 million expected in tax rebates from Gift Aid. This was a huge achievement and rightly congratulated, however in light of his death I began to look upon it slightly differently.

At first I had been glad to hear that the money he raised had been used to provide well-being packs for National Health Service staff, mobile devices to help patients to stay in contact with family, help facilitate rest and recuperation rooms for exhausted staff, and fund community groups who support patients with post-hospital care. However, after seeing Boris Johnson say that Captain Tom had “enabled millions to show their support for the wonderful men and women of our unique NHS”, my joy turned to dismay. The celebration of charity is something I am wholly in favour of, however when it comes from the man in charge of the government who has failed to support NHS staff and generated the need for Captain Tom’s charitable efforts it feels much more hollow.

As news reports about companies paying their respects flooded in; such as Keighley Bus Company giving a bus the name Captain Tom, and Great Western Railway following suit with a Train, a Power boat from Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service, and even a foal from World Horse Welfare; I wondered why the media had seemingly failed to remind people why Captain Tom’s fundraising efforts were needed in the first place, where the government had spent the previous 10 years enacting policies of austerity and cuts that harmed the NHS’ ability to protect the population and its staff.

This focus on tales of hardship and success for a good cause, whilst ignoring systemic problems seems to me to be a rather concerning trend; one which has become especially prevalent in the United States, and it seems to be taking hold here as well. Known by many as a genre of journalism called “Perseverance Porn”, the stories normally consist of a young child or an old man doing some sort of gruelling physical activity to raise money for a charity or to pay for someone’s medical bills. When you read them you are normally filled with a quick feeling of warmth, glad that someone was able to raise money for a walker for a child unable to walk, worked extra hours and donated their vacation time to a friend as a baby shower gift so that they could take maternity leave, or do 15 years of backbreaking labour as a night shift janitor at Boston College so a child could attend college. However, after more than five minutes of thinking, one hope’s that people would question why lemonade stands were needed to pay for the child’s ability to walk, and why they weren’t provided with the necessary treatment, why new parents aren’t automatically given maternity leave, and why someone should have to take on extra night shifts of work for 15 years to pay for 3 years of education. 

One heart-breaking example of this journalism was when CNN reported on a homeless boy who received a college scholarship. The article opened by saying “Hardships were never an excuse for Moseley”, which may be the case but this failed to consider that there are other homeless teens who aren’t offered millions in scholarships. Whilst written as a feel good story about how a homeless teenager from Tennessee managed to graduate high school as a valedictorian and earned many college scholarships, it read as a horror story. The writing briefly notes that after his father died, Moseley’s family’s home was foreclosed and they were on the streets, but sees this as simply an excuse that could have blocked his success rather than a reasonable cause for poor grades.

If one extrapolates the views from the article, one would think that the journalist was suggesting that poor housing, a lack of a proper welfare system, poorly funded schooling and a destitute public education system are simply excuses from lazy homeless teenagers for why they did not achieve what they wanted to in life.

Both these disturbing American articles and much of the coverage of Captain Tom appeared to me to be full of praise about charitable action, the value of traditional strong “protestant work ethic” and the honour of people who try to help those in need. However, whilst we can admire the never-say-die attitude of those in tough conditions and those who support them through charity and feats of physical or mental toughness, this is no substitute for guaranteed public programs to help those in dire need, public program’s that Boris Johnson and the wave of government officials who supported Captain Tom had control of.

As you may have realised, this is less of a traditional news article, and more a call to action. In my opinion, the problem with “Perseverance Porn” is not the brave people who the articles often revolve around, but the lack of any journalistic scrutiny which should be examining the reasons why a rich, affluent society finds its people, be they homeless students or exhausted and underfunded NHS Staff, in such desperate circumstances to begin with. Next time you read about heroic actions, or perseverance; make sure to think about why they were necessary.