Why was the reaction to Lily Allen’s Calais Jungle apology so vicious?

During a visit to a Calais refugee camp, Lily Allen made the fatal mistake of being human

News travels so quickly these days that it feels as if The Story and The Backlash happen almost simultaneously. On Wednesday Lily Allen became a fresh target when footage of her during a visit to the Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle was put online.

Her tears after hearing the story of 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan who had risked his life to reach the Jungle were dismissed as ‘crocodile’, and her reflexive apology to the boy was called ‘ridiculous’. ‘I apologise on behalf of this country for what we’ve put you through’ she said in the short clip of footage taken from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show, before burying her face in her hands.

Allen was also accused of being a ‘luvvie’ – a favourite insult lobbed at celebrities who dare to engage in causes outside their own showbusiness bubble. A-listers who endorse charities are frequently accused of grandstanding or tokenism. Angelina Jolie might have spent the best part of 15 years visiting conflict zones and campaigning for women, but there will always be someone in the wings ready to accuse her of self-promotion.

But, like it or not, celebrity ambassadors bring valuable and much needed attention to charitable causes, and Allen’s intentions in this case seem to be entirely well-meaning.

Allen has attracted criticism in the past for speaking her mind, something we still seem to find difficult of women in the public eye. You might not agree with her views on the UK’s culpability for the refugee crisis, but I can’t help but think the outpouring of hatred over her choice of words to the boy suggests people are angrier because it was Allen who said it, rather than what she said.

There are also those who would argue she has no ‘right’ to apologise on behalf of her country, but the context here is important – her apology wasn’t part of a pre-prepared statement, it was a reaction to a wretched situation.

Earlier this year my husband and I had a Syrian refugee come to live with us. It was through a brilliant fledgling charity which places refugees in temporary accommodation once they have been granted leave to remain. She was a 23-year-old from Damascus who ended up staying with us for six months. The story of how she had come to the UK emerged in bits and pieces over the time she lived with us and I got to know her better, but I vividly remember a moment one evening, a few months into her stay, when she relayed a particularly nasty phase of this journey. I remember my acute embarrassment when I crumpled into tears in front of her – great big, heaving sobs which seemed to come out of nowhere. The emotion took me by surprise, not because her story wasn’t deserving of it, but because I simply hadn’t seen it coming. I was also quite cross with myself: it just felt inappropriate and indulgent to be sitting there weeping all over her. Surely I could control my emotions better than that. I remember apologising over and over – for my tears, for the situation which had befallen her and probably (so sue me) for my country too.

Allen’s reaction felt like one of those moments, the simple power of a one-on-one conversation – a single individual story in a great big awful puzzle of human suffering – sweeping her away in an unexpected rush. I don’t think there’s anything particularly ‘luvvie’ about that.

Reading now