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Bitter-sweet charity

By Ari Reid - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Charities use stereotypes about the lives of “the unfortunate” as marketing and fundraising tools, and aren’t always honest; embellishing and fictionalising in order to illicit an emotional response that involves your wallet. This advertising should be held to the same account as any other; commercial or not. When charities lie, who is brave enough to call them out on it? When charitable acts harm the lives of the very people they claim to be helping, who is there to make a case for the voiceless? When charities are in direct funding competition with the target groups they are claiming to help, who stands up and says ‘enough’?

In 2009 it was Scarlet Alliance who brought to a halt a damaging Salvation Army marketing campaign that had used an obscure anecdote about a sex worker to encourage donations to their Door Knock appeal. The problem? The story was either fictionalised and/or used non-consensually, the story was not illustrative of where the fundraised monies were going, and the story invisibilised the already funding-starved work of sex worker organisations who are struggling in the same field. The story gave them undue credibility at the cost of the target group they were portraying. In response, the Salvation Army graciously removed the advertisement from circulation, apologised, and Scarlet Alliance and the Salvation Army have maintained an ongoing workable relationship, despite such difficulties. These issues have raised their head since that incident, but the Salvo’s and Scarlet Alliance have been able to work it out away from the public eye.

In recent years Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, has became aware of serious allegations being made against the Brisbane-based Australian charity, The Grey Man.  This Brisbane based charity claims to work towards eradicating child exploitation, child trafficking and children working in the sex industry in South East Asia.


The Grey Man first came to prominence in 2009 when they were featured on the ABC’s  Australian Story. Founded by a former SAS soldier, its volunteers have backgrounds in the police force and armed forces. The charity’s special brand of rescue includes undercover operations in which The Grey Man volunteers pose as paedophiles seeking to engage the services of underage sex workers.

Scarlet Alliance and other sex worker projects in the region were concerned about The Grey Man’s ad hoc methods and unchecked success claims.  We know that raid and rescue operations do not work in assisting victims of trafficking, underage sex workers or exploited workers, we know that in fact raid and rescue operations create further barriers for sex workers in accessing human rights. However The Grey Man’s cowboy image and vigilante operating style caught the public’s imagination and the charity went on to be showcased on 7:30, in print, radio, television and online media regularly, particularly by the ABC, with bylines such as “A secretive Australia-based charity dedicated to hunting down sex traffickers has had a breakthrough in Cambodia” and “Australians rescues child prostitutes in Cambodia”. The Grey Man relies solely on public donations was promoted and celebrated by the media, particularly the ABC, as an Australian success story.

Then in October 2011 the Australian media reported “Brisbane-based organisation The Grey Man rescues 21 children destined to be sold into prostitution in Thailand” and goes on to claim that “The rescued children are now staying in safe houses in another village while they await sponsorship from the public.” This latest success story, complete with photos, went up on their facebook page, along with requests for donations to assist the “saved” children.

However in December 2011 Thai media accused  The Grey Man charity of child exploitation and fraud in relation to their latest claims. The story reports that the charity faked the rescue of the 21 hill tribe children, lying to the community about their purpose for being there and then using photos of the children to solicit donations via the internet. The report alleges the children were never in danger of being trafficked or being forced to work in the sex industry.

This story was further investigated by Andrew Drummond a British journalist based in Thailand who writes that the AFP have been asked to investigate The Grey Man’s story that they rescued 21 hill tribe children, saving them from certain slavery in factories and brothels, and also urging the AFP to consider prosecuting the charity because money was raised under false pretences. Drummond says an investigation found that the children never left their village, were all living at home and were attending a school on a daily basis. Not only that: their schooling was provided under a special government fund so all their meals, uniforms and schoolbooks fees were paid for.

Yet in contrast to the amount of Australian media the charity has previously attracted, only The Australian has run this story  on the case. The ABC who arguably gave the charity its public profile has been completely silent.


We wrote to Media Watch to express ourdisappointment in the lack of attention this story was getting from the same Australian media outlets who previously featured the charity or promoted its work, most notably the ABC. We believe it is now the responsibility of those same media outlets to inform the public of these very serious allegations.

Apart from exploiting Thai children, causing damage to the reputation of an entire village and strengthening harmful and hurtful stereotypes, it is also being alleged that the charity conned the Australian public in order to get donations.

However Media Watch responded to our letter by saying that they have no issue with the media’s portrayal of The Grey Man charity. Their response simply says that if we see any more media about the charity which does not mention these new allegations, we should alert them then.  They take no issue with the current lack of balance, journalistic integrity and responsibility or the previous lack of fact checking. 

While it would be naive to expect fair and ethical media representation of all media all the time, we do think that the Australian public deserve to know when the ABC get it wrong and when the public have been conned. But it appears the Australian media is too obsessed with Asian sex slaves and white saviour stereotypes to do so, and Your ABC is leading the charge.  Recent damaging reportage by 4 Corners and follow up coverage by 7.30 on this very topic failed to mention not just the work of Scarlet Alliance, but also that of the Australian Red Cross, because our political positions and service delivery ethics don’t match “sex slavery” hysteria.  SBS also has fallen into this trap, showing the Norweigan made documentary “Modern Slavery” which encouraging monetary donations for Somaly Mam among other unreliable charitable figures. Mam is accused of abusing the sex workers she claims to assist, and is lambasted in the sex worker produced youtube film “Bad Rehab”.  To be fair, while SBS has given Mam uncritical coverage in the past, SBS also regularly covers the local solidarity work by sex workers and anti-trafficking orgs in our campaign against the policies that Mam and her organisations support.  Yet without such protests by sex workers, these unethical charities would never be questioned.

So it falls on sex workers, using a voice that is already marginalised, to compete for airtime against charities with whom we already compete with for funding, to ensure the media and public are educated on complex issues such as trafficking. Sex workers were the only people to review and critique the unethical Oscar nominated documentary “Born into Brothels”. Sex workers in the US are driving the response to Ashton Kudger and Demi Moore’s failed foray into “rescuing” a imaginary American child sex slaves, playing watchdog to Google’s funding of inappropriate rescue organisations, and warning Obama of the damage forced rescue reeks in the lives of sex workers in Cambodia. Hanteo in Korea are protesting US pressure to introduce harmful anti-trafficking laws. Scarlet Alliance and SWOP NSW are still mopping up the political mess left behind after 4 Corners sensationalist coverage of trafficking in Australia. And after a media love affair with discredited charity the Grey Man, in Australia it falls again to sex workers to remind the media, and the public, that claims of rescuing sex slaves are rarely what they seem.

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About the Author

Ari Reid is the Vice-President of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association. You can follow her on Twitter

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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