Live Aid: Bob Geldof’s Original Response to SPIN’s 1986 Exposé
To mark the 30th anniversaries of both Live Aid and SPIN, we're revisiting our coverage from 1986
[This piece was originally published in the August 1986 issue of SPIN, one month after our exposé, “Live Aid: The Terrible Truth.” This week marked the 30th anniversary of Live Aid; to coincide with that milestone, we’ve republished organizer Bob Geldof’s response to our feature.]
Every day for a month, often several times a day, we tried to interview Bob Geldof in response to our findings for Bob Keating’s article “Live Aid: The Terrible Truth,” published in last month’s SPIN. At one point we arranged for questions to be sent to him in England which he would answer by cassette sent back to us. For all our efforts, he didn’t respond.
On June 10 we held a press conference in New York to answer questions about the story and give the press the opportunity to question three relief experts who were valuable sources for our reporting. Dr. Rony Brauman, president of Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), a French medical relief group which was thrown out of Ethiopia by the government for refusing to remain silent about the atrocities it witnessed; Dr. Jason Clay, anthropologist and director of research for Cultural Survival, an organization that works with tribal societies and investigates human rights abuses; and Bonnie Holcomb, an anthropologist who has worked extensively with famine victims in Africa, especially Ethiopian refugees who have fled to Sudan.
Prior to the conference, we sent the printed magazine with the article to Bob Geldof and within 48 hours he issued the following statement to the press. The small footnote numbers are ours and correspond to our comments about the various inaccuracies in the statement.
“It is not possible for the Ethiopian government to have received any Live Aid money except with the connivance and complicity of aid agencies operating in Ethiopia¹ such as OXFAM, CARE, Save the Children, World Vision, UNICEF, and all other beneficiaries of Live Aid money including Medicins sans Frontieres itself.² And this is unlikely. Perhaps, MSF are privy to information Live Aid/Band Aid and other agencies are not.³ This is a politically fraught area of the Horn of Africa, therefore, subject to misinformational campaigns constantly perpetrated by the interested parties in Ethiopia, Tigre, and Eritrea. Most probably consciously abetted by outside agencies and now unfortunately and almost certainly innocently, MSF seems to have allowed itself to be used as pawns. Agencies are supposed to help people regardless of their frontiers and political beliefs. If people are suffering, you help.
“MSF, unfortunately got evicted for their outspoken political views,4 thus depriving them of their one justifiable function — to help the sick and dying. They seem to have embarked on a war of attrition based on certain debatable factors. Indeed, within MSF itself there has been one ideological split between its founder, Bernard Kouchner, and some others.5 Bernard has now formed Medicins du Monde with whom Live Aid in France shares its office in Paris.6
“Certainly, one cannot stay silent about political atrocities, criminality, or corruption. But I think most people would agree silent I have not been, discussing these and other topics with the most senior government officials of these countries in private and on both British and American television.7
“If the MSF story is an attempt to discredit us, make us appear naïve or at best irresponsible, it is a matter of public record that this cannot possibly be the case.8 On the other hand, by our own nonoperational status in the field, we are free to pursue such a course of action without hindering the flow of money to the agencies and through them to the people most in need. Unlike MSF, they cannot throw us out, because we are not there. Unlike MSF, we can say what we like, where it is most effective. And even MSF must agree we sometimes get results simply because we have the money. Unlike MSF, we have done this from the start. I said as early as January 1985,9 I will shake hands with the devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help. Unlike MSF, wounded pride does not come into it. Live Aid helps those in Tigre, Eritrea, and Ethiopia itself through whatever channels are available to us. lf it is truly medicine without frontiers, how come they are erecting their own ideological borders? They will cite their own expertise and experience as being the basis of justification behind their claims, but I have heard from so many experts these past months, and for their expertise and experience the problems still remain.10 The dying continues and the immense suffering stays unchecked. Meanwhile, MSF holds press conferences to aid the flagging circulation of a pop magazine.11”
1. That’s a big exception. Our report showed the abuse of relief aid was widespread, from trucks to food, and if Live Aid-funded agencies were in turn exploited, then Live Aid indisputably fed into the system of relief exploitation.
2. Medicins sans Frontieres has not received one dollar of Live Aid money.
3. Because of their involvement in the field prior to expulsion, MSF do have valuable experience they could share with Live Aid, but no one from Live Aid has ever bothered to contact MSF.
4. MSF was not expelled for adopting a political stance, which they don’t do anywhere in the world, but for speaking out against intense human rights violations.
5. The split occurred eight years ago, and, obviously, had nothing to do with Ethiopia, despite Geldof’s implication. Within MSF were two camps of thought: one group wanted to stress human rights and the other field work. Bernard Kouchner broke away to form Medicins du Monde and Dr. Rony Brauman and Claude Malhuret (who was quoted in our article) concentrated MSF on field work.
Last December, just after MSF was kicked out of Ethiopia, Medicins du Monde issued a statement supporting MSF’s stand against the atrocities in Ethiopia.
6. As we understand, Medicins du Monde is so dissatisfied with Live Aid’s approach to Ethiopia that a rift has grown between them and some in MDM are anxious to ask Live Aid to leave the shared offices.
7. While Geldof may have spoken about the difficult political climate in Ethiopia, it is only as vaguely as that, which is why our story was so shocking. People just did not know the scope and Geldof did nothing to enlighten them.
8. The point of the story was not to discredit Live Aid. That would serve no point whatsoever. It was not MSF’s story — it was an independent investigation by SPIN, and MSF sources were interviewed along with several others.
9. MSF was active in the field in Ethiopia nine months before Geldof made his first statements in January 1985.
10. All three experts who formed our press conference panel and who have such invaluable experience in and knowledge of Ethiopia and famine were unsuccessful in repeated attempts to talk to Bob Geldof and his key people. When Bonnie Holcomb wrote to Band Aid about her concern regarding their actions, she received a T-shirt and Live Aid pin in reply.
11. SPIN, not MSF, called the press conference and invited Brauman, Holcomb, and Clay to attend. Brauman flew from Paris for the day to be there. Throughout his statement, Geldof refused to directly address any of the facts of the article. He did not deny our findings, but attempted instead to deflect attention towards Medicins sans Frontieres who, beyond what they have to say in the article and other interviews, were not the point of the story, which was to show what has really happened to relief aid in Ethiopia.
Bob Geldof makes one point we totally agree with: “The dying continues and the immense suffering stays unchecked.” How long will it go on? At least as long as we pretend it isn’t so. We can’t stop the problems in Ethiopia until we know and understand what the causes are.
– Bob Guccione Jr., August 1986
All photos by Getty Images