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What sticks in the craw about Bono with most people in Ireland is his crafty avoidance of massive tax liabilities at home while simultaneously strutting the world stage as a Messiah, a ‘jumped up Jesus’ (Bono’s own words), intent on ‘saving’ Africa’s poor.
Up to now, and the publication of ex-Irish Times writer Harry Browne’s book, The Front Man: Bono (In the Name of Power), ammunition to sling has been thin on the ground. Deliberately so. From the get go, when U2 were kids bawling out songs at the Dandelion Market in Dublin, Bono’s ambitions were as high as his stacked heels; when he and U2’s legendary manager Paul McGuinness teamed up, a roadmap exploiting Bono and the boys’ talent, plus Bono’s ambition, joined with Mc Guinness’s ruthless understanding of how to ‘PR the PR’ was laid down. The image was going to be everything.
So far, so rock and roll.
Interestingly, it was fellow rocker, Bob Geldof, who opened the door to international stardom.
At the Live Aid gig Bono stole the show – grabbing a girl from the crowd, dancing with her on stage and borrowing some of Geldof’s thunder, by ‘discovering’ Africa. Within a month, he and his wife Ali were in Ethiopia for a month as volunteers.
Browne says what perhaps started out as genuine desire to help those less well off than himself quite quickly morphed into the Bono we see today – Rockstar Dude who’s going to save the world, or St. Bono, who has gatecrashed the inner circles of the world’s power elite preaching charity and debt reduction, and now, thanks to years of schmoozing, casually name checks George Bush, (Senior and Junior), Paul Wolfowitz, Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet,.
In ‘Frontman’ Browne manages to peel back some of the PR aspic covering St. Bono to reveal Paul Hewson, a tough businessman firmly astride a very tough business empire which aggressively avoids the tax man, particularly in Bono’s own, bankrupt homeland, Ireland.
During the years of tax exemption for artists here, Bono and Co made millions, however, as soon as the Irish government put a cap of €250,000 per anum (a great deal more than many writers or artists ever make) in 2006, Bono and Co’s tax affairs were transferred to The Netherlands quicker than you could say Joshua Tree.
During the Celtic Tiger ‘boom’ years this was bad enough, but since Ireland’s economic collapse, it’s felt toxic. Bono may be the darling of American chat shows, with Oprah Winfrey saying that in her eyes he is the ‘living embodiment of hope’ – here in his hometown, graffiti in the inner city offer a different opinion: ‘Bono is a poxbottle’. Or as another wag put it, ‘What’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t strut around Dublin all day thinking he’s Bono’.
Interestingly, ‘The Frontman’ hits the shelves at a time when national governments, their hands forced by hard pressed tax payers, are questioning the tax practices of giants Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Google et al, who earn millions in profit and pay pennies in tax.
In the UK in 2012, Amazon paid 2.4 million in tax, on sales of 4.2 billion.
In 2010, U2 Ltd paid €16,500 in corporate tax, while U2 the band two yearly returns showed they grossed $736,137,344.
Not only that, the biggest tax avoiders – the Apples, Starbucks, Googles and Facebook – are the very people Bono is in bed with.
Take his company (RED) ‘a model of opacity’ – a company supposed to garner millions for the world’s poor by selling its conscience friendly branding to the world’s rich. In returns posted in 2009 (actual figures for all of Bono’s companies are notoriously difficult to come by) just $18 million reached its parent company the Global Fund, while a staggering $100 million went on advertising.
It’s the core of all Bono’s transactions Browne argues – neo liberal clothing covering brutal self enrichment.
Even Bono’s wife, Ali, through her ‘ethical’ clothing company Edun, now outsources manufacturing to China (not so ethical), while collaborating in Uganda with the American right wing, evangelicals ‘Invisible Children’, or the people who made the discredited ‘Kony’, child soldiers, video.
Sadly, for Africa, American right wing evangelicalism is at the heart of many of Bono’s activities, and at the heart of many of his best buddies activities too. While Bono gives a cheery TED talk on how world poverty and AIDS are on the decrease (thanks largely to him being the subtext), the truth is less benign: AIDS drugs come with evangelical puritanism. Birth control drugs come with more puritanism. The rise of anti gay and anti abortion movements in many African countries is no coincidence, says Browne.
Even more alarmingly the big boys Bono is in bed with – the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets – are part of the newest global power broking deals that see Africa as an inchoate resource to be milled. Land to be ‘managed’ for global food production (hello Monsanto). Resources to be grabbed (hello virgin lands, oil, gas, gold, diamonds).
Instead of fighting for African farmers to be paid properly for what they produce (African coffee growers get 0.25 cent per pound of coffee while we in the West sup cappuccinos at €3 per cup), it’s more politically advantageous to Bono and his pals to say Africa needs aid, specifically the very questionable aid of multi billionaires who’ve spent their lives avoiding tax, crushing competitors, asset stripping weakened colleagues.
Bono’s real dangerousness, argues Browne, is as a ‘Frontman’ for these super rich now planning to launch what many see as another wave of colonialism, under the aegis of the very questionable, New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition – launched at the G8 last year and enthusiastically supported by Bono. A danger picked up, and amplified by George Monbiot in his review in The Guardian, and later, in the same paper, Terry Eagleton, who dismissed Bono as ‘a crony of bankers and neocons’.
Or as Harry Browne puts it in ‘Frontman’, Bono’s approach to Africa is “a slick mix of traditional missionary and commercial colonialism, in which the poor world exists as a task for the rich world to complete”.
Naturally Bono has activated his (considerable) PR department to try counter the dark picture Harry Browne has painted in ‘The Frontman’ – bringing in pals Bill Clinton (‘Bono is the best advocate for the poor I have ever worked with’), appearing on TED, (everything’s groovey man, in 5 more years aids and world poverty are OVER), having cosy chats with Charlie Rose on CNN (‘Transparency is the vaccine for corruption’). And appearing here in Ireland with fellow saint, Gay Byrne, on the hour long ‘The Meaning of Life’ programme.
Perhaps the most bizarre piece of PR however was Bono and Ali’s ‘private lunch’ with Michelle Obama here in Dublin at the beginning of the Summer. While her husband, Barak Obama, was in the North of Ireland at the G8 – pushing for tax transparency, she and her daughters were being lunched by one of Ireland’s biggest tax avoiders, the lunch date kept absolutely secret until the very last minute, presumably to stop us natives revolting.
Some commentators argued the Michelle lunch date was a sop to Bono for not being invited personally to the G8, others saw it as both an astonishing snub to our President, our Prime Minister, our many women’s organisations, and an indication of where the real power in the world now lies, i.e., with the super rich.
To show just how far Bono (and Paul McGuinness’s) power reaches not one newspaper of quality in Ireland has seriously addressed the issues raised in ‘The Frontman’, instead attempts to rubbish it have been everywhere, with one senior journalist dismissing it as ‘just a bunch of newspaper clippings’.
Interested Irish have had to search the web to find intelligent critiques; a bizarre situation indeed.
Still, the facts assembled by Harry Browne in ‘The Frontman’, cannot be so easily schmoozed: Bono has spent his life becoming filthy rich (grand); he now uses his rock and roll celebrity status to gain access to, and sprinkle some rock and roll gold dust on ‘the suits’ in power (not so grand), and preaches aid, and AIDS, in the company of some really nasty, right wing tax dodgers, while tax avoiding and asset accumulating with the best of them (not very grand at all).
As legendary left wing activist from the Bogside, passionate music lover, Eamonn McCann put it at the launch for ‘The Frontman’, Bono’s political antics are a ‘dishonour to the tradition of rock and roll’.
Rock and roll was music’s high rolling apex. Orgiastic, wild, explosive – the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, the Rolling Stones. Rock and roll was the counter culture. Delusions of saving the world did not figure. For true rock and rollers here in Ireland, to see it’s global commodification energetically helped along by one of our own, moreover, used as a shield for billionaire neocons, is too sad.
One can only hope that Harry Browne’s book will bring ‘Bono, The Frontman’ back to us. Back to earth. And back to the music. Bono and U2 did after all give us all some unforgettable rock anthems and for those many, many thank you’s.
Dave Marsh, editor of Rock and Rap Confidential in the US, saw in his June review, ‘Bono as that little boy in man’s boots, surrounded by forces he fathoms no more than a five-year-old fathoms the perils of the sea… not so much a huckster as a sucker; not a con man so much as a victim of the world’s greatest con artists; not an egomaniac but someone so insecure he has found ways to be shielded from almost all harsh realities’.
Huckster or sucker? Read ‘The Frontman’ and see. Perhaps ‘our’ Bono still hasn’t really found what he’s looking for?
Rosita A. Sweetman lives in Ireland.