BBC feels force of Bob Geldof’s anger over arms claim
Bob Geldof demands the heads of reporter and World Service chiefs
Bob Geldof with children in Africa, 1985.
It had been a while since Bob Geldof had been seen out, other than on the podiums where he still fetches up to collect awards for his humanitarian work. But last week he was back at his ferocious best, shaking his grey mane and roaring like an elderly lion rudely awoken from a nice slumber.
In language as strong and unrelenting as ever, Geldof did not just deny a report by a BBC journalist that millions of pounds of Live Aid money was siphoned off to buy weapons for Ethiopian rebel groups at the height of the 1985 aid operation; he ripped it to shreds and stomped on it. It was “calumny”.
He then demanded the sacking of Martin Plaut, the reporter behind the story, of Andrew Whitehead, head of World Service news and current affairs, and of Peter Horrocks, the director of the World Service.
Horrocks has stated his support for Plaut and said the questions asked were “in the public interest”.
Plaut quoted two ex-rebels, former members of the TPLF, a group in the Tigray region fighting the murderous Marxist government. The TPLF has since evolved into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, whose leader Meles Zenawi is prime minister of Ethiopia.
One of the rebels, Aregawi Berhe, said only 5% of the £65m in aid money reached the starving; the rest went on weaponry. A second, Gebremedhin Araya, said the TPLF had sold bags of sand disguised as grain for thousands of pounds to the aid agencies. A further source came from a 1985 CIA report that said “some funds for relief operations …are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes”. The Americans at the time were keen to see the rebels do well against the Soviet-backed Derg government. The CIA report said, however, that the rebels relied on food aid to keep support alive. The BBC report was followed up by several media outlets with the 95% claim given precedence.
With elections due in Ethiopia in May, there will be political overtones. Both former rebels have axes to grind with Zenawi – who denies any knowledge of weapons being bought with aid money. With the rebels desperately needing local people’s support for their fight, it would have been suicide to deny them food, his ministers say. There is also little supporting evidence of where the weapons would have come from.
But equally in such chaotic times of famine and war, it is naive to imagine that all the money reached the neediest hands, especially 25 years ago when NGOs and charities were not run with the professionalism most are today. Even Geldof admitted: “It’s possible that some Live Aid money was mislaid.” But 95% of £65m? A veteran Africa reporter told the Observer. “The figures certainly seem a bit odd. How were all those people fed, and I saw them being fed, if all that money was going to weapons?
“As far as I was aware, the first serious arms weren’t bought by the TPLF until 1990, after they had robbed several banks to pay China for them.”
But it is the damage to the flow of charitable donations that has Geldof and the charities lining up to attack Plaut’s report, especially in a week when a leaked UN report said that up to half the food aid to Somalia is diverted to militias and corrupt officials.
Several charities joined the Band Aid Trust in pushing their complaints to the top. Others are considering joining. A letter is being sent to Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, signed by several of the world’s big-name charities who were involved in getting food to starving Ethiopians as the famine left a million people dead.
A further complaint is expected to be made to Ofcom, and there is to be a crisis meeting this week between Geldof, Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, and Horrocks.
“This kind of programme feeds into the vein of scepticism out there about how much money does reach people in need,” said Andrew Hogg of Christian Aid. “It’s just not justified. We spend a lot of time and money evaluating how things are spent and keeping a close watch on our accounting. We feel quite strongly that this World Service report relied on evidence from sources which were all questionable.”
No one feels as strongly as Geldof. “Just as the Ross-Brand affair exposed the systemic weakness of the BBC in the area of entertainment, so this now does in the news sector of the World Service – albeit with far more drastic consequences,” wrote the honorary knight in an article for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free website, two days after BBC reporter Rageh Omaar had written supporting the corporation’s right to examine the fate of the money.
“Now, on the strength of one disgruntled soldier, the BBC has undermined the faith of ordinary people across the world in the effectiveness of giving to people in their hour of need,” said Geldof.
What is telling is that Ethiopia again plays only a bit part in a row between an angry celebrity political activist and the BBC over a 25-year-old allegation. One Ethiopian civil servant said: “There is war and violence raging on three of Ethiopia’s borders, food shortages in the Afar region and refugees with little humanitarian assistance reaching them near the Somalian border. But the Western media is still covering old white men fighting an ancient war.”