The tarnished halo of “Saint Bob” Geldof

Francis Carr Begbie


In 2013 Bob Geldof was awarded the Freedom of the City of London for his outstanding contribution to international social justice and peace.

Strangely there was no mention of his services as a corporate mouthpiece for the financial services industry, which is an odd omission.

For at the time Geldof was in the throes of launching his own hedge fund and he was supporting what the Wall Street Journal  called, a “huge private equity push into Africa,” Geldof’s 8 Miles Fund boasts a distinguished team of advisors,  concentrates on African investments, and has attracted the support of J P Morgan.  Typically, he deflects awkward questions with a joke, calling himself a “private equity whore”.

But Geldof’s partner in this venture could hardly be more respectable.  Merchant banker Mark Florman is a former Conservative Party fund raiser, BBC trustee and, when not working on philanthropic ventures,  is busy defending the City of London from regulation via his other role as head of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

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With Geldof the gap between image and reality grows larger all the time. Last September Geldof claimed he would house four refugee families and emoted in his usual way,

I can’t stand what is happening. I cannot stand what it does to us. … We must have the politics and the humanity to deal with it. It makes me sick and a concert won’t do it.”

It is a monstrous betrayal of who we are and what we wish to be; we are in a moment that will be discussed and impacted upon in 300 years time.

Yet many months later there is still no sign of any refugees at any of his homes, a situation which has led to widespread comment.

Presumably he expects these refugees to be paid for by the taxes of those who cannot afford elaborate offshore tax avoidance companies in the way that he does. Geldof is notoriously touchy on this subject and shuts down television inquiries by launching into the usual foul-mouthed spate of expletives. When asked about his tax arrangements, he says “My time, is that not a tax?.” A curious argument — not recommended for anyone dealing with the tax authorities.

As an Irish national, he is entitled to use that favorite UK tax avoidance loophole: the status of “non-domicile” taxpayer. This enables individuals with nominal overseas connections to legitimately avoid paying large sums of tax on overseas earnings. He also exploits off-shore tax avoidance companies in the British Virgin Islands to ensure that his two properties, a mansion apartment in London and a rambling twelfth-century priory in Faversham, Kent, are both exempt from property and inheritance taxes.

So, just over 30 years on from Live Aid, what is the legacy of Bob Geldof? Thanks to him. many famous rock music names have discovered there was no better way to prop up a flagging career than develop a sudden concern for Third World causes. Live Aid provided the template for much that we see all around us today. Whether it’s charity work of Bono, Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie or the founding of the BBC‘s massive Comic Relief charity, it all has its roots in the pioneering example of Bob Geldof. The celebrity status of these people make them very effective propaganda tools indeed.

The commodification of celebrity humanitarianism has also come a long way over the last thirty years. Today potential stars with good back stories are spotted and groomed for their role in much the same way as boy band members. A good example is Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban while going to school in Pakistan. After recovering in hospital in England she became the poster girl for the education of Muslim girls in Third World countries and has spawned her own brand. She too has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and is now a millionaire thanks to book sales, speaking fees, and television appearances.

Geldof has also helped the open borders industry drape itself in virtue and hugely strengthened the forces of globalisation by acting as a corporate figleaf for some of the most rapacious organisations and disreputable individuals on the planet.

Today, austerity-hit Britain is spending more on foreign aid than ever before — £12.2 billion at the last count. It is more than likely that this is partly because of Live Aid.   Officially the money is going to humanitarian causes but in reality it is being spent on population transfer into Europe and much of this money is channelled into the swelling ranks of dubious NGOs that are fuelling the refugee crisis.

Most importantly, thanks to efforts of decades of international relief programmes the population of Ethiopia, like so much of southern Africa, has exploded. And the long march into open borders Europe has begun for many.

So perhaps to gauge Sir Bob’s real achievement we have to look at the flood of refugees into Europe from Africa and across the Mediterranean.  The real legacy of Sir Bob can be seen in the rafts that arrive every day on the shores on Sicily, in the migrant shanty town of Calais and in the ghettoes that are growing across Europe.

What a long, strange trip it has been for Sir Bob. It was just over 30 years ago at the Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief that Geldof strode to the centre of the stage at Wembley Stadium and lapped up the wave of adulation which included an estimated global TV audience of a billion.

He taught a generation that anything was possible if the will was there. They could transcend borders, nationalities, skin colour and religion and help their fellow human beings. While the rest of the world looked the other way only Geldof, it seemed, had the unique moral vision to see beyond the red tape and quibbling.

He had come a long way from his roots in Dublin. According to Wikipedia, Geldof’s paternal grandmother was Jewish and his grandfather, Zenon Geldof, was a Belgian immigrant and a hotel chef who built up a sizeable business.

After boarding school he spent several years drifting and ended up fronting a rock band. Armed with massive self-confidence, he saw that a lack of musical ability was no hindrance as long as the image was right. The marketing phenomenon known as “punk rock” was tailor made for such an incorrigible loudmouth and, to his delight, Geldof discovered that every pronouncement, no matter how witless or uninformed, was rewarded by acres of newsprint. It was a discovery that served him well, and for a couple of years the Boomtown Rats were regularly at the top of the charts.

But while the band’s rise was fast, the descent was just as sharp, and by 1984 the hits had dried up and Geldof was in deep financial trouble. The band had squandered their final recording company advance without actually recording an album. They were faced with a huge tax bill as a result of a tax avoidance scheme gone wrong

On 15 November, 1984 BBC TV broadcast a gripping report on the Ethiopian famine. That TV package was beautifully filmed and the shots of telegenic starving Black babies touched hearts across the globe.

Moved by all this, Geldof called an old friend, Ultravox singer Midge Ure, and the two met to thrash out plans for a charity single at Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair. Geldof was so broke, Ure remembers, he had to pick up the bill. The rest is televisual history.

But from the outset there were doubts about Geldof’s mission and these centred on the nature of the disaster in the Horn of Africa itself. There were three distinct components to the emergency — the first was a genuine drought-induced famine and the second was population displacement caused by a civil war.  But the third was entirely caused by the Ethiopian government itself. This was a policy of mass collectivisation that was in every way as brutal as that carried out by Stalin in the Ukraine in the 1930s. This policy had led to a massive loss of life and was being forcibly imposed by the Marxist-led government of Mengistu Haile Mariam who had led the Ethiopian government since the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974.

It was a situation that led to sharp divisions between the aid organisations. Eventually the French relief organisation Medecins san Frontiers pulled out while the rest stayed in. As the NGOs that stayed in Ethiopia began to face criticism in the press, Geldof leapt to their defence. “The organisations participating in the resettlement programme should not be criticised,” he told the Irish Times on November 4 1985. “In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers.” Asked about the estimates that 100,000 had died in the transfers, he replied that “in the context (of such a famine), these numbers don’t shock me.”

One of the main critics was a reporter from Spin magazine called Bob Keating who published an expose on how the regime was using Western aid money to buy weapons and was forcing the population into a deadly collectivisation.

As Spin recalled, when it re-published the story last year, Keating had painted a devastating portrait of the reality:

Most damningly, Keating reported that Geldof was warned, repeatedly, from the outset by several relief agencies in the field about Mengistu, who was dismantling tribes, mercilessly conducting resettlement marches on which 100,000 people died, and butchering helpless people. According to Medicins Sans Frontiers, who begged Geldof to not release the money until there was a reliable infrastructure to get it to victims, he simply ignored them, instead famously saying: “I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help.”

In Famine and Forced Relocations in Ethiopia 1984–1986 Laurence Binet reprinted a report from Le Monde in March, 1986 which said:

According to several witnesses, these population displacements, which sometimes took the form of forced marches, were sometimes organised by means of threats and physical violence.

On June 18, 1986 the Washington Post reported that soldiers shot and killed farmers who attempted to run away. The paper carried a withering assessment from a senior aid worker on a discussion panel.

Dr Rony Brauman, President of the French medical relief group Medecins sans Frontieres, said:

These institutions make themselves accomplices of genocide. The magnitude of the famine and human rights violations in Ethiopia can only be compared to the Khmer rouge.

Geldof seemed to shrug off these concerns.  Without the co-operation of the Ethiopian government there could be no famine relief programme. And without that there could be no Live Aid.

Geldof’s attitude at this time is perhaps reminiscent of Walter Duranty, the infamous New York Times correspondent.  In the 1930s Duranty had been given unique access to the Soviet Union and sent back laudatory reports on the Bolshevik  revolution that somehow neglected to mention the starvation of millions of people. Turning a blind eye was a career-making move for Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize.

But it is international aid expert David Rieff who has been Geldof’s most dogged critic. In a July 2005 article in American Prospect magazine Rieff said that one of the unintended consequences of the 1985 appeal was the death of perhaps as many as 100,000 people.

In that article — reprinted in the Guardian  —  Rieff wrote:

The truth is that the Dergue’s (Ethiopian regime) resettlement policy — of moving 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others — was at least in part a military campaign, masquerading as a humanitarian effort. And it was assisted by western aid money.

Though even Mengistu’s Soviet patrons advised against it, the Dergue, as François Jean of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) put it at the time, chose to employ “shock treatment in order radically to transform Ethiopian rural society”. But one finds no mention of that in any official account of Live Aid, in the speeches of Bob Geldof or the Oxfam website. The Ethiopian terror famine was on a smaller scale than its Soviet and Chinese predecessors, and many in Ethiopia who died in the mid-1980s were not victims of the Dergue’s campaign in a direct sense. But, as François Jean wrote, all three terror famines “proceeded from the same approach to reality … the same vision of the future, the same extreme commitment to radical social transformation”.

Initially, the authorities called for volunteers to make up the 100,000 heads of household the resettlement plan called for. Few came forward. The response was swift. A campaign of systematic round-ups across the three targeted provinces began. Those caught up in these sweeps were either airlifted south or transferred by land, sometimes in vehicles the authorities had requisitioned from international relief agencies. The trip usually took five or six days. To this day, no one knows how many people died en route. The conservative estimate is 50,000. MSF’s estimate is double that.

Twenty years after Live Aid, another series of worldwide concerts were staged. This was called Live8 and was largely co-opted by transnational organisations. In a carefully choreographed move, the G8 world leaders’ conference agreed to cancel some African debt and increase aid.

And Live8 came under criticism but this time from former supporters, including left wingers such as former BBC DJ Andy Kershaw who had been a commentator for the original Live Aid. For Live8 he said:

I am coming, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Live8 is as much to do with Geldof showing off his ability to push around presidents and prime ministers as with pointing out the potential of Africa. Indeed, Geldof appears not to be interested in Africa’s strengths, only in an Africa on its knees. …  Geldof is a self-appointed champion of the wretched and downtrodden who is, simultaneously and incongruously, mesmerised by the rich, the powerful and those with A-list celebrity status.

Geldof has been quick to take advantage of the business potential of Brand Bob. His television production and internet companies have made him millions and required him to do little but lend his name. Such is the aura of virtue surrounding him.

Live Aid made Geldof a living symbol of humanitarianism alongside HRH Princess Diana, the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa. “Saint Bob” was anointed the foul-mouthed voice of youth.  A generation learned, from his example, the delicious feeling of intoxication to be derived from lecturing others on their moral shortcomings.

Since Live Aid, Geldof has been a permanent fixture on the jet-setting humanitarianism circuit. NGOs and corporations queue up to receive his blessing, the doctorates and the Nobel Prize nominations seem never ending. He is in great demand to lend his name to celebrations of globalization. All for a price of course.

For Geldof is all business, as one group of charity organisers in Australia discovered in 2008. To deliver one speech about Third World poverty, Bob Geldof demanded $100,000 (Au), first class flights, accommodation in Melbourne, and a security detail.  The organisers duly paid up — and reckoned it was good value. Other speakers had done the same event for free.

Incidentally, it should be noted that Geldof’s demands pale in comparison to the demands of Hillary Clinton, that other moral crusader on behalf of the oppressed. Her demands for a 20-minute speech: $225,000, private jet, presidential suite in a first class hotel, plus business-class travel, hotel and food for up to five staff members. Doing well by doing good.

But getting back to Geldof, his speech in Australia is an unedifying glimpse into the reality behind the image. Like Michael Jackson, Geldof is too famous to be damaged by criticism but, of late, the halo has begun to look tarnished.

One recent episode involved a bizarre nautical PR clash that took place between pro- and anti-vessels on the Thames during the EU referendum debate. The Brexit flotilla, led by Nigel Farage, consisted of Scottish fishermen protesting the destruction of their industry because of EU quotas.

This was ambushed by a huge vessel chartered by Geldof for the “Remain” side. Armed with a huge sound system and packed with a sneering collection of music business detritus, PR spivs and various open-borders lobbyist flotsam, they poured derision on their blue-collar opponents.

They were led by the mocking figure of “Saint Bob” himself, lent a certain Biblical aspect with his long, straggly, gray hair. He  subjected the Scottish fishermen to a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse and obscene hand gestures. Can there be any doubt that the “humanitarian left” has become a pillar of the establishment?

As an image of how the fashionable metropolitan elite no longer bother to hide their contempt for their less fortunate countrymen it could hardly be bettered.


Is That it? By Bob Geldof and Paul Vallely, Penguin, London 1986

If I Was…  by Midge Ure, Virgin Books, London 2004

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