Bono a hypocrite? Good.

Last Friday night as I watched U2 play Glastonbury on TV, the stream of hatred on Twitter was relentless. A torrent of unforgettable ire. I’ve long known that Bono and his band excite very mixed reactions, but this seemed to take things higher. Their music is not to everyone’s taste but on this occasion the bilious flood stemmed from the band’s attitude to taxation, or rather to tax avoidance.

U2’s presence at Glastonbury inspired a small demonstration from Art Uncut, which was quickly smothered by the concert organisers. But of course the organisers could not suppress the outpouring of righteous anger on the internet. How dare Saint Bono preach his anti-poverty rhetoric while greedily and irresponsibly avoiding the very taxes needed to fund international aid? There are no crumbs for the poor from the U2 table, they blogged. It’s so cruel, people tweeted.

Bono’s hypopcrisy is a very obviously a bad thing. Except that it is, in fact, a good thing.

U2 1981 - in black and white

It’s easy to get confused on this because so much of the discourse on Twitter is deeply superficial. Layer upon layer of triteness is laid down in such quick 140-character strokes that the real issues can get buried.

But at the same time, not all of the exchanges mis-lead and I’m grateful to @gimpyblog, @giagia, @nettycox and @aoifemcl among others for the debate I ended up having on Twitter, which spurred me to find out more about U2’s tax position and the wider question of the intersection between tax laws and international development. I hope this blogpost might continue my education.

Since the band’s formation over thirty years ago they have benefitted from a tax regime in Ireland that looked favourably on artists because it did not tax royalties on their work. The primary aim of the legislation was to encourage the arts by providing relief for struggling artists. But the law was a relatively crude instrument since it also benefitted artists who had struggled all the way to globe-conquering success.

U2 have always had a head for business and did particularly well under this tax regime because —unusually in the music industry — they retain the rights to all their music. But they weren’t the only beneficiaries: many British artists including Sting, Frederick Forsyth, and the BBC’s John Simpson moved to Ireland to take advantage of the lighter taxes.

In 2006 the Irish government decided to limit tax-free earnings on artistic royalties to €250,000. With this cap the tax benefit was better targeted to needy artists, though it was still relatively generous*. But the move would have taken a big bite out of U2’s millions so they upped sticks and moved their business to the Netherlands, where the tax regime for royalties is now one of the most favourable in the world: the rate is reckoned to be about 1.5%. It is no coincidence that The Netherlands is now also home to the royalties of the Rolling Stones. If you want delve into the details of Dutch tax law and rock’n’roll profits, I can recommend this thorough article from The New York Times.

It is U2’s ruthless drive for tax efficiency that has attracted the attention of Art Uncut and other commentators, who see it as totally at odds with Bono’s anti-poverty campaigning.

And they are right. Aren’t they? Well, sort of, but the issue isn’t black and white.

For a start, Bono and his band mates have done nothing illegal. U2’s actions certainly deprive the Irish government of tax revenues that they could use for international aid, but the band are acting entirely within their rights as a business that operates within the EU.

Moreover, U2’s and Bono’s financial affairs are private and we don’t have the right to know what they are. Nor to we know much about how Bono spends his earnings. He may or may not donate generously from his own income to charitable causes, but he doesn’t say, so we don’t know and it’s a bit pointless to speculate.

There can be little doubt, however, that Bono’s work to campaign against poverty and disease is effective, whether it be via the RED label or the campaigning group ONE or by his endless badgering of presidents and prime ministers. As in science, the impact of his efforts are hard to assess in detail and some people scoff. But those who have seen him operate are impressed.

None of the above eliminates the stinging charge of hypocrisy, however much the band might argue back. There is a case to answer, though it is not one that should be solely centred on Bono and U2. We need to take a hard look at the tax regimes of countries that allow rich businesses equipped with smart accountants to avoid their duty.

But thanks at least in part to U2, perhaps all that is about to change.

I may be mistaken but I don’t remember any outcry when U2 were based in Ireland and benefitting from lighter taxes than they now pay in the Netherlands. It was only when they jumped ship from Ireland that the cries of hypocrisy went up. And those cries only went up because Bono’s tireless campaigning against poverty has been so effective at drawing attention to the plight of developing nations. Were there howls of protest when the Rolling Stones moved their money to the Netherlands, depriving the British government of tax revenues that could be used for development? I didn’t hear any. Curiously, it takes a hypocrite to get people excited.

But to what end? It’s now a week since Glastonbury and the anger has faded away. The passionate intensity so quickly whipped up on Twitter has dissipated just as speedily. And what is the point of passion if it doesn’t lead to action?

If only more people had Bono’s ability to stick with an issue and work at it, the world would probably be a better place.

*Since Jan 2011, the cap has been reduced to €40,000, presumably as a result of the troubled state of the Irish economy.

Postscript: I have dithered a while over this post. My views on these issues are coloured by my experience so I’m not sure how clearly I am seeing things. I grew up in Northern Ireland and got into U2 and their music almost as soon as they appeared on the Irish music scene, as I’ve written in another post. I could well be biased. Also, I’m no economist and don’t really understand the full implications of how the tax games that EU countries play affect the broader landscape of international development. So all insights on that topic will be gratefully received.

This entry was posted in Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

67 Responses to Bono a hypocrite? Good.

  1. cromercrox says:

    ‘Unforgettable ire’. Oh, very good, Professor.

  2. Stephen says:

    There’s more where that came from (for those very familiar with their back catalogue)… 😉

  3. Shirley says:

    I’m also from N Ireland and I completely agree with you. I think what mainly pisses people off about Bono is that he tries to do good things with his influence. People seem to *really* hate that and I think that has much more to do with the vitriol than his tax situation. I also think that putting the spotlight on Bono, making him some kind of scapegoat for Ireland’s economic problems is faintly ridiculous.

  4. Cathyby says:

    Good post. Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on the cause of the ire 🙂

    BTW, when this was discussed in Ireland when it happened (with much the same emotions) it was said that Bono et al were still resident in Ireland for tax purposes. It’s the royalties that have gone off-shore. I don’t think that has changed so those saying Bono pays no tax in Ireland are incorrect.

  5. rpg says:

    I liked “hypopcrisy” meself.

    • Stephen says:

      Nothing to see here. Move along.

      (I should have written hip-hopcrisy)

      • rpg says:

        Oh, you mean it wasn’t a deliberate joke?

        • Stephen says:

          Sorry – common or garden tyop.

          You realise, of course, all this is *your* fault…

          • ricardipus says:

            I am terribly late to this party, but it seems important to note that the one time I saw U2, one of the opening acts was, you guessed it, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

            They sucked. The other opener, Primus, were ten times worse.

  6. Heather says:

    I am commenting just from the novel position I get to take. Usually I am the one defending national taxation to a number of my American friends. I think it’s important for citizens to pay their taxes and to give their governments the means to provide services and represent their countries abroad.

    However, I’d agree with you very much on this one. If U2 is being taxed in the Netherlands, and they are “taking advantage” of being European, more power to them. We *are* European. There’s a Parliament and everything. National taxes go in part to that budget.

    If the only reproach is that someone else should be spending their money on the developing world instead of them, I’d need more convincing.

  7. XtalDave says:

    A minor point of information about the (RED) campaign:

    “In its March 2007 issue, Advertising Age magazine reported that Red companies had collectively spent as much as $100 million in advertising and raised only $18 million. Officials of the campaign said then that the companies had spent $50 million on advertising and that the amount raised was $25 million. Advertising Age stood by its article.”
    Source: NYTimes

    RED raised less for charity (regardless of whether you believe the figures Advertising Age or RED themselves provided) than was spent flogging the products. Wouldn’t it just have been easier to make donations to charity?

    It leads one to rather odd conclusion that self-promotion is more important than philanthropy to these companies (shurly shome mishtake?).

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Dave – I’m all for scrutiny. Is that $100 million spent just on advertising RED products or is that the budget for advertising products for which there happens to be a RED version?

      And, of course, there is a benefit to the companies in this – the charitable concern is making a faustian bargain of sorts. The same applies, I guess, to bands who participated in Band Aid etc. – they may have worked for free but would surely have had an eye on the publicity.

      Still better than doing nothing, in my view.

  8. gimpyblog says:

    Here’s a question, Bono rubs shoulders with senior politicians and seems, if rhetoric is to be believed, to have some influence with them – so why doesn’t he advocate government action to prevent the rich from shopping around for a favourable tax rate?

    After all, evading taxes can bring a country to its knees, as we see with Greece, and the developing world in particular has huge tax-evasion induced problems in a government’s ability to fund infrastructure improvements. It’s hard not to see Bono as advocating poverty alleviating solutions paid for by all the classes of society, except the ultra rich who can still shop around.

    As for the Rolling Stones, given their history of womanising, drug abuse and dodgy lyrics about unlawful sex with underage girls (not to mention Bill Wyman putting this into practice) that would shame Gary Glitter, it’s clear they are moral degenerates and people don’t expect any better from them, with U2 and Bono it’s different. If Bono wants to be seen as a force for good in the world then he can expect to be judged on his actions, not just his words.

    Also, the Rolling Stones have better songs and ultimately that’s what this is about.

    • Stephen says:

      Tempted to say that this has a hint of what Johann Hari would call “Whatabouterry” about it. But I won’t go there… 😉

      So U2 should be held to a different standard than the Stones because they actively — and genuinely — campaign on poverty? Seems an odd stance. Because they do some good, they have to be perfect, otherwise they’re rubbish?

      But ideally, yes, you have a point. However, why put all the onus on Bono and U2? As I’ve tried to argue, let’s lever the hypocrisy to put the glare of attention where it should be — on tax laws that favour the rich and powerful.

  9. Shirley says:

    I am under the impression that the point of RED is not to raise money for developing countries. It exists as an organisation that puts pressure on governments to help out developing countries. This is crucial and possibly born out of the frustrations left by the likes of Bob Gelfdof’s Bandaid campaign- lots of money raised but no real change in Government and meanwhile the richest governments of the world still do little to help.

    I will look it up now but I’m pretty sure this is how it’s meant to work. It does not exist in the same way as an aid organisation might.

    • Wendy says:

      That’s actually the work of the ONE campaign – those of us who support its’ work do so with the understanding that this organization is not asking for our money, but our voice.

      The thing that Bono had learnt about helping the developing world, and specifically Africa, was that even though BandAid/LiveAid had made all of this money and sent food, it wasn’t really helping. That only by the support of governments (and the West’s support in removing corrupt governments) would things truly begin to change. Because it’s with the governments themselves that the support gets to the people.

      There was also quite a bit at the beginning in conjunction with the “Drop the Debt”/Jubilee 2000 campaign in regards to forgiving tax burden to these countries, so that they could begin to rebuild as their servicable debt to Western nations would mean that aid/benefit would never reach the people who would receive the most benefit.

      Stephen was most correct in his pointing out that none of us know what kind of philanthropy the individual members of the band participate in, though the current tour does have the RED[Zone] tickets – which are sections of the floor that go for auction and all proceeds go to purchase AIDS and Malaria drugs for the third world.

      And did they not just help to establish the arts fund in Ireland as well? So they’re not totally private about all of their philanthropy….just for the most part.

  10. Shirley says:


  11. rpg says:

    Gimpy speaks the truth.

    And of course companies would rather promote themselves than simply give money to charity. The whole “buy our shit and we’ll give something away that gives us a tax break anyway” thing is bent.

    • Stephen says:

      Bent it may be — and I think most people see through it —  but is it better than nothing at all?

      • rpg says:

        Talking of being slender to the point (ooer)… the Pink Ribbon campaign for one I think does more harm than good.

        These are companies who are encouraging people to buy stuff that either is carcinogenic or uses carcinogenic materials in manufacture, not to mention the whole limited resource issue… whereas if just they said “here’s a million quid” they’d get the tax breaks just the same, they’d get free publicity, and they wouldn’t be producing nasties.

        anyway, U2. They suck, right? And frankly, an extra few millions of quid ain’t going to make much difference to world poverty. So if they’re serious about it and it isn’t just a cynical marketing exercise, they HAVE to be squeaky clean.

        Eeek eeek eek.

        • Stephen says:

          Do you really think they are being totally cynical? That view doesn’t stack up against the reports from people who have worked alongside Bono.

          I agree there’s a problem – the tax avoidance does appear to weaken their stance.

          But maybe that’s a clever ploy? Maybe they realised that being U2-goody-2-shoes all the time would only earn a limited amount of publicity, and have deliberately calculated to sail close to the wind on tax law in order to stir up the issue and get more publicity for the issue of faulty tax legislation…

          It could be true! 😉

        • Stephen says:

          This article that David Kroll (below) pointed out it well worth reading – gives an inside view of what Bono gets up to and his reflections on his own hypocrisy.

  12. Shirley says:

    Oh OK scrap all that stuff I just said about RED. Apologies, I was clearly thinking about something else. Interesting website at though!

  13. Shirley says:

    But if all the money raised from RED goes to aid work then what’s the problem? That it’s not all coming out of Bono’s pocket, including the money for advertising? Why do we care how much Bono gives? Most of us do nothing and if we do we certainly don’t have people coming around to say it’s not enough.

  14. Shirley says:

    Oh it’s ONE I was thinking of. Another of Bono’s ventures. Glad I’m not mad. Sorry for taking up the comments thread. Will shut up now.

  15. cromercrox says:

    As Stephen and U2, so me and Queen – a group whose tunes accompanied my teenage years, but which fell foul of the self-elected arbiters of taste by daring to be popular and rich and played tunes without any social conscience whatsoever but which a lot of people really liked. The nadir came when they played at Sun City in apartheid South Africa, an admittedly questionable decision, which fueled the self-elected etcetera etcetera to fever pitch. Queen went into a kind of self-imposed purdah after that. It all changed when Bob Gelfdofflf persuaded them to play at Live Aid. ‘Tell the Old Fairy it’ll be the biggest *&^%$£@ ever’, said Geldof, or words to that effect. So Queen played Live Aid and stole the show, after which all was forgiven and forgotten. Freddie died and achieved a kind of sainthood; Brian May played the National Anthem on the battlements of Buck House and became Brian Cox’s Dad, and the rest is history. Queen is a National Institution – but who remembers Miami Steve Van Zandt, or whoever it was that pointed the finger after the Sun City incident? Let those who are without sin cast the first Stones.

  16. David Kroll says:

    I find your analysis spot-on – and I had not appreciated previously that some British artists like Sting established residences in Ireland for the tax benefits.

    I hold Bono and U2 up as *the* person and *the* band who has done the most in my music-listening life to use their “globe-conquering success” for good outside of their own pockets.

    Your post reminds me that I really need to write up a talk I presented at the first academic U2 conference held here in North Carolina in 2009 on Bono’s role in getting antiviral drugs and other aid to HIV/Aids victims in sub-Saharan Africa. Living here, I was blown away that Bono was able to convince that late, gay-bashing, racist US Senator Jesse Helms to push for US$200M for this cause. He did the same in courting GW Bush, as detailed in this Guardian article:

    “Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with the conservatives. He said, ‘You’re not going to have a picture with George Bush?’ I said I’d have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake.

    Bono has a gift for gaining an exhaustive and comprehensive grasp of policy issues and communicating them in a manner persuasive to decision makers. Hell, he even used Jesse Helms’ bible to convince the senator that he had a moral obligation for little black kids with HIV.

    So I’m willing to cut him some slack on the financials.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for a that comment – I had no idea there were academic conferences on that sort of thing! Please do write up your talk.

      And you rightly emphasise the point about having to consort with the enemy, to compromise to get things done. I believe it’s called politics… 😉

    • Stephen says:

      And, having read the Guardian article you linked to, David, I’d like to encourage people to have a look for themselves, to get a better idea of what Bono’s activism entails. It also suggests he is well aware of the contradictions inherent in his position.

    • Wendy says:

      Yes – and Bono also studied at Harvard for several weeks with Jeffrey Sachs before he went to Washington to begin lobbying so he would know what the hell he was talking about when he went to visit Jesse Helms (and actually got Helms to go see their Elevation show).

      • Stephen says:

        Thanks for those links Wendy, especially the one to Bono’s commencement speech — more education for me! — (which I have alluded to in my response to Cary’s long comment below).

  17. Martin Robbins says:

    Nice article.

    The big problem I have with the charge of hypocrisy is that it fails unless you assume that the Irish government = charity. If Bono paid extra taxes to Dublin tomorrow, I severely doubt any significant portion of the money would go to the international development budget rather than, say, bank bailouts or deficit reduction.

    If U2 did pay full tax in Ireland, maybe we could have another protest with people shouting: “What do we want? Stop paying taxes for bankers and move your business affairs to the Netherlands, using the increased revenue from their attractive royalty tax rates to fund more initiatives to help the third world! When do we want it? Prior to the 2011-12 tax year!” (I’m not saying that’s accurate or what they actually do, just making a point for argument’s sake).

    As for the tax evasion itself, Bono can base himself wherever he likes, and quite rightly too. If I can emigrate to Canada, and Jenny Rohn can come and live in the UK, then why should Bono be any different? Government intervention here would be downright sinister – the path of attacking the free movement of labour ends in a very disturbing place normally occupied in British politics by the far right, restricting migration and forcing a weird sort of ‘compulsory patriotism’ on people.

    And what if, say, Ethiopia insituted generous tax breaks for artists and U2 based themselves there – would people still attack him for not paying taxes to Ireland, or would that be acceptable because it was a poorer country than the Netherlands? If that were acceptable, why would it be any different to e.g. withholding tax from Ireland and just giving the money directly to aid charities (which Bono may or may not do anyway, we don’t really know as you point out)?

    So I think your post is spot on. It’s one of those issues where a lot of people start jumping on the outrage bus without checking the destination first.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Martin – you nicely illustrate some of the additional complexities. Though this is generally supposed to be a science blog, I justify writing on this sort of issue because it highlights the need to look more carefully at the evidence before getting hot under the collar (a tendency that Twitter makes all too easy – but hey, we all love a rant from time to time).

      Oh, and I do like the idea of an outrage bus – definitely going to steal that image at some point.

    • gimpyblog says:

      Martin, governments need tax to fund services and infrastructre Avoiding taxes costs countries money. It can even bankrupt nations, cf Greece.Not having enough tax revenue means you cannot fund services or infrastructure. This means lower standards of living for all but the rich. Bono avoiding taxes is hypocritical if he is a poverty campaigner as tax evasion contributes to poverty.
      Suggesting that people shop around for an ideal tax rate means that governments would compete for low taxes, driving them down as low as possible. Services and infrastructure degenerate, poor get poorer, the rich are ok. Visit a tax haven and compare the standard of living between rich and poor if you must.

      • Stephen says:

        That is precisely the problem, isn’t it? I don’t think the Dutch are so very popular with their EU buddies as a result of the tax breaks that they offer. The same could be said of Ireland’s ‘competitive’ corporation tax rates which were a big bone of contention when they were looking for other EU countries to bail them out. I presume the problem is worldwide and ultimately will have to be dealt with at that level.

        • Martin Robbins says:

          Yup. Fixating on Bono really just ignores the much wider and more interesting issue, which is how the EU (and the wider global system) works when different countries within the group are competing with each other on tax.

          I seem to recall there are some treaty agreements on corporation tax, but of course there are all sorts of other benefits aside from that. In the UK for example, we have tax breaks for R&D, which helps new start-ups and makes us more attractive to international firms and investors, in term helping employment. I don’t see many people arguing against that, even though it’s exactly the same as the Bono situation.

      • Martin Robbins says:

        You’re ducking the question. Yes, governments need money, but why does the Irish government deserve to receive Bono’s money and not the Dutch government, or hypothetically the Ethiopian government, or ‘Charity X’?

        “Suggesting that people shop around for an ideal tax rate means that governments would compete for low taxes, driving them down as low as possible. Services and infrastructure degenerate, poor get poorer, the rich are ok.”

        That’s an illogical argument, easily debunked by pointing out that as economies have liberalized over the last several decades, tax burdens have not plummeted. People and companies don’t generally just shop around for an ideal tax rate, they also look for good governance, a skilled population, good infrastructure and a wide range.

        It’s something a lot of smart, poorer countries benefit hugely from. Ironically it’s something that Ireland itself played on by pursuing an aggressive policy of low business taxes in the first place, but I don’t recall anyone complaining that U2 should have moved their operations elsewhere back then.

        Incidentally, I gather you’ve spent some time working abroad; so are we supposed to condemn your own behaviour in taking your money away from British people living in poverty?

  18. Bob D says:

    “Curiously, it takes a hypocrite to get people excited.” – I think some people are unable to interpret the existence of someone campaigning for something worthwhile as anything other than a guilt-trip or a personal affront.

    (It’s either that or accept that change might be worthwhile, and that’s just a bit too much to ask.)

  19. Stephen says:

    This is another interesting post on the topic of U2 taxes, pointed out to me by Shirley (I think!) on twitter this morning — it’s by a Presbyterian Minister.

  20. Let us not forget that Sir Mick was an economics major many years ago. Excellent points all around. But Bono is doing more than a lot of ‘tax haven’ celebrities, and I think that speaks volumes.
    Great Post!

  21. cary says:

    hey (i apologise in advance that is not as succint as it likely could be.)

    really interesting post. i think you and i are largely in agreement but, fwiw, i have a handful of points that maybe speak further to the non black and white nature of it all…

    i agree that the outcry on twitter was well – it was what it was. for as much as i like twitter, that same weekend there was equal if not greater outcry over zane lowe saying live from glastonbury that he preferred rock to Beyonce. so, i think the level of reaction needs to be taken in some kind of proportion to the ease with which people can sound off on anything. and there’s perhaps a need to at least ask whether or not the medium amplifies or inflates already existing attitudes or whether it just encourages people to get arsey simply because they _can_ vent.

    that said:

    i want to push back just a little on your take on this, because i disagree that this outcry has suddenly bubbled up when they moved their business to the netherlands.
    having lived until very recently in ireland for 23 years in both dublin and belfast i can testify that there were _definitely_ those in dublin who didn’t look kindly on a band making the kind of money U2 did benefitting from such generous tax breaks, especially pre-celtic tiger boom. there may have been ‘no outcry’ of the degree there is now but that in part is due to the current economic climate and also the fact that there’s now twitter. but i heard many a time in the pub over pints and on radio call-in shows and in the print media opinions that expressed the somewhat complicated relationship the irish (south of the border and particularly in Dublin) have with Bono. it says perhaps more about the irish psyche than the band themselves, but nonetheless, it’s complicated — a mixture of pride at their success and resentment at success. and it’s been that way for a long time. point being: from an irish perspective, this outcry isn’t actually anything new at all.

    i’d also want to push back a bit on his reputation as being impressive. well, that depends on how you look at it too…

    i worked in dublin for several years, in the earliest days of the boom, for the very overseas aid organisation that as far as i know had taken bono and his wife on their first trip to Africa. and i lobbied the irish government professionally on increasing Irish Aid levels. all celebrity campaigning and advocacy raises complicated issues for aid organisations and campaigners. in an irish context and particularly in dublin it was always messy to know whether aligning oneself with Bono was beneficial or not. (i will say this: there was no question, that even pre-celtic tiger, those who gave the most, relative to income, were always those with the least.)

    and it seems to me that the twitter outrage and indeed the Art Uncut protest – exposes the same risks involved in celebrity campaigning – the difficulty is that a sizeable number of folks will not see the issues but instead only see the celebrity. i think the Art Uncut argument is a valid one but a great number of people will only see this in simple terms of bono being a hypocrite and not the bigger issues involved. on that we agree, but i’d think it’s important to note that that’s a risk Art Uncut take, just as it is a risk that bono the campaigner takes – his very celebrity in both cases a double edged sword: it can attract attention and also distract attention.
    the issues needing attention to my mind is not ultimately whether bono is a hypocrite but if one is going to be a campaigner then one does put oneself in a position of being judged.

    case in point:

    bono is in many ways an easy target but in large part that’s his responsiblity. i have little desire to put energy into calling him a hyprocrite, but on the other hand i have little interest in defending him.
    i worked for years alongside people in organisations large and very small who even in coalition constantly struggled to get media attention or access to power. bono was the one who could get the access & attention, not because of his ethics, but because of his celebrity. why? because government staff and politicans are just as wowed by celebrity as the rest of us and it makes them look good. in the end it is the grassroots campaigners and their partners in developing countries who i look to for authority on these issues. their work has never boosted their image, or financially benefitted them – far from it in fact – and therein lies a sizeable chunk of their integrity in my eyes. but his celebrity has often made the work of other organisations to be heard harder, not easier.

    “what they’re doing is not illegal” is missing a massive point being made by the UKUncut/ArtUncut protest: that it *is* legal — _is_ the problem. taxation laws that allow the richest companies and individuals to use loop holes – usually involving the crossing of national boundaries – to avoid paying taxes at home are tax laws for the benefit of the wealthiest. having an off-shore account is not something the average citizen can do.
    further, U2 themselves – the Edge in particular – have publicly used the prickly defnesive ‘we’re not breaking the law’ defense. that’s fair enough we might say, but it’s complicated by the fact that from a campaigning perspective U2 – and Bono in particular – have tackled injustices that frequently, however unjust, are not “illegal”. what is legal, is not always just. so for me, the “is it legal?” line of reasoning doesn’t come close to addressing systemic inequality and it’s a weak line of defence for the band to take.

    in the end, i agree with you. but we differ only in that i don’t feel _any_ need to defend U2 simply because i like some of their music, or because it’s legal or because other artists do the same. and your approach i think is on the right track. i just think that the more one avoids the black and white, the _less_ impressive Bono appears. because the very things bono rails against he largely benefits from and way more than most people benefit. bono is a symptom of the larger inequity rather than a cause. if one takes into account the issues raised over the louis vuitton/edun deal and then the Hewsons may very well be argued to be a direct cause of other’s poverty themselves. either way, it is not them i look to for ethical leadership.

    celebrity blinds us to the bigger real issues, and in this case that seems to work every which way.

    if only the same outcry could be generated over the inequalities in the world. and in the same way, i have little time for the twitter outrage over him – because it’s just as blinded by celebrity as his unquestioning fans are.

    in the end, the need for a rockstar to tell us what’s wrong with the world is just so damning of where we are at in the world. you’d think nobody read the newspaper. and as with all uber-celebrity, in the end the real issues of concern will always be overshadowed by the brand of the celebrity.

    (as an aside, i write this from Nashville. U2 play here tonight. even amongst those who can’t afford to go to the gig, there’s a degree of worship that, given this is the buckle of the bible belt, one could easily term idolatry. Bono really can do no wrong here for most of my friends here. in this city, that worship is not (simply) because he’s Irish, but because he’s “a Christian” — (something that most Irish people don’t give two hoots about). but you won’t find any of his
    Christian fans speaking about hypocrisy – he’s got a total pass on that front. which i find not a little ironic. in this case: absolutely blessed are the rich.)

    btw, bono is himself on twitter – @paul_hewson.

    interesting discussion. sorry my response was so very bloody long. you sparked a lot of thoughts.


    • Stephen says:

      Cary – many thanks for taking the trouble to write such a detailed and thoughtful counter-view. No need whatsoever to apologise for its length, though it will take me a while to reflect since I’m in London and it’s now the end of a long day at the end of a long week.

    • Stephen says:

      Cary – have had more to reflect on your detailed and insightful comment. As I think we both agree, there are many shades of complexities in this.

      I guess my post was framed as a kind of defence of Bono and U2, in reaction to the superficial outrage that erupted on Twitter (now the natural home of easy outrage, it would seem). But it was also an effort to pick apart some of the presumptions and misconceptions surrounding the tax avoidance issue. Your comment has made an important contribution to my thinking – for which: thanks.

      Thanks also for the background on the perceptions of U2 in Ireland – I’ve not lived there since the mid-80s and had been rather oblivious of that.

      With regard to the use or abuse of celebrity, I can see that this raises problems. In a way, the access that Bono gains because of his fame is a bit like the access granted in the UK to Prince Charles, which cropped up in the Guardian yesterday. I have no sympathy with Charles’ position which I see as an abuse of power. My antipathy is partly due to the issues he campaigns on — fox hunting, alternative medicine and architecture — but its also because he is using a position that is an accident of birth to meddle unconstitutionally in the affairs of a democratic government.

      I see Bono (or many other celebrities) in a different light. In his case, the fame is borne of talent and hard work. It doesn’t matter what area that fame is won in. What matters to me is that he has made a choice — and a very serious effort — to exploit it in a good cause. The commencement day speech that Wendy linked to above gives some insight into the motivation. Typically it is elaborated with his trademark gobshite-ery but it seems clear to me that the motivation is genuine.

      That said, I agree with you that there are concerns about the distorting effect of celebrity. They seem to be a fact of life, along with the fawning attention paid to them by the press (though it’s worth remembering that they are just trying to see their wares to the common man and woman) and, as you say, politicians. But I honestly don’t know where the proper balance lies. Clearly it’s better if they do something rather than nothing — in the grand scheme of things (though I acknowledge some organisations suffer as a consequence) — but how much is enough?

      Lastly, having read a fair bit since last week (OK – just a few newspaper articles and blogs) I retain the impression that Bono’s motivations are entirely genuine (even if the execution is flawed sometimes). In fact, his understanding of the global issues of poverty is far more sophisticated than I had realised. He understands that raising and handing out aid is simply not enough — hence his involvement in the drop the debt campaign. But this makes it all the more strange that — as gimpy asked above — he does not publicly campaign for the reform of tax legislation that allows wealthy organisations such as U2 (and many other bands and businesses), to move around the world looking for tax savings that reduce public finances.

      • Martin Robbins says:

        The abuse of celebrity is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand I agree that I dont like Prince Charles’ meddling. On the other, the fact is that at almost every level of society your ability to get heard is tied up inexctricably with your personal ‘profile’, and people who don’t fight to be noticed (like Bono) often won’t be heard.

        This works at every level too. You (Stephen) have 1,800 followers on Twitter, making you a sort of mini-Bono in your own personal circle. Nobody granted you that right, there was no democratic process that said that your blog or your Twitter feed should be given that degree of influence, it just sort of happened through the “wisdom of the crowd” or whatever you want to call it.

        Is it fair? Probably not. Is it fairer than most alternatives I can think of? Maybe. It doesn’t really matter – that’s the way life is, and you either work with it or you don’t. Bono does, and his causes benefit as a result. If he didn’t, they might not. So I won’t criticize Bono for it, but I do agree that the whole ‘Celebrity Culture’ we live in now makes me very uncomfortable.

        “this makes it all the more strange that he does not publicly campaign for the reform of tax legislation”

        Well, how many things can one guy campaign for and still make a meaningful impact? There’s an element of whataboutery here, or the infamous ‘will-you-condemnathon’. And he may not feel it needs reform anyway…

        • Stephen says:

          Martin – three things:

          1. Clearly I move among a very wise crowd.

          2. The idea of me being a mini-Bono tickles me — though in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I have worked tax-free in France for 6 months and in the USA for 2 years. The tax-free status is the result of international treaties and was not the primary motivation for working abroad (I was looking to broaden my experience as a research scientist). However, it was not unwelcome. So maybe there is more to the parallel than meets the eye?

          3. I take your final point but only partially. It’s not that I expect Bono to campaign on everything but this issue seems to spring logically from his current position as a tax avoiding poverty campaigner. My guess is he’s thought about it. Given his sophisticated understanding of the impact of international relations on the economies of poor nations, it is a reasonably obvious question.

          Personally, I don’t yet have enough of an understanding of economics to be able to judge what are the fairest types of international tax arrangements. It seems clear enough to me that the facility provided by the Dutch (a nation with which U2 have no strong or natural connection) provides them (and others of course) with an advantage that reduces government coffers. The benefits to U2 are obvious. Are their public benefits of this arrangement that I am missing?

          • Martin Robbins says:

            “Are their public benefits of this arrangement that I am missing?”

            Well the Dutch for example are attracting new businesses and employers, and increasing tax revenues.

            The Irish are benefitting too, because what the Dutch are doing with royalty taxes is no different to what the Irish have been doing with corporation tax, undercutting other EU nations in order to attract more international investment, generating more revenue and creating jobs.

            And then of course there’s the question of how Bono’s private spending (through e.g. employing people via his businesses, or his philanthropy) benefits the public in Ireland and beyond – that’s the big unknown here. It’s perfectly possible that he could be benefitting the public more through direct spending than if he entrusted the same money to the Irish government to spend it.

            I think the problem with Bono’s critics is that they don’t do the legwork needed to build a proper case against him. They take an incomplete set of facts and then bridge them with some massive assumptions, for example assuming that the Irish government is better at distributing money to the poor than Bono’s private spending, or assuming that any significant amount of U2s tax contributions would go to international development rather than, say, military spending or bank bailouts.

            In short: If people want to make a serious case for Bono being a hypocrite, they need to get down and dirty with some maths and actually prove it.

    • Matt McGee says:

      While enjoying one of the more intelligent conversations on this topic that’s to be found online, I simply want to point out something factually incorrect in Cary’s comment:

      Bono is not on Twitter. The account he mentions is a fake. (As If Bono would have to use his real name with an underscore and NOT be verified by Twitter?) 🙂

      We’ve asked the band’s PR people many times about various accounts that pretend to be Bono, and none of them are him. He’s even said he’s not a Twitter user:

      • Stephen says:

        Hi Matt – thanks for the correction.

        Since you run a fan site, can I ask if there has been much discussion of these tax issues among the fan base?

        • Wendy says:

          As a member of the said fan-base (and a follower of many years of Matt’s site), the only chatter about it within the fan-community seems to merely be the re-posting of new articles purely from a documentation perspective. We’re more busy chatting about the upcoming show or the story I posted above form Nashville.

          I think we (as fans) are fairly savvy and know that this whole thing is a) a publicity stunt for Art Uncut – I mean if you’re going to target someone, why not target the “biggest band” on the planet? and b) the band’s personal and corporate tax and financial issues are, quite frankly, none of our business.

          Is the new record good? Is the tour amazing? That’s the primary concern – the rest is, honestly, fodder.

  22. Wendy says:

    However, we should all also remember that they have made a lot of investments within Ireland and as residents, most certainly pay in the top tax brackets in regards to their personal wealth, which, I’m sure is considerable…

    • Stephen says:

      You may be sure, Wendy, and I agree it does seem likely but we just don’t know. And that information is likely to remain unknown — as is how much Bono donates privately since his philosophy is not to publicise charitable giving (sorry, forgot where I read that). It is these unknowns that make it more difficult to make judgements of his activities, even if some don’t hesitate to do so.

      • Wendy says:

        Exactly. But, given all of the charitable works both he and his wife, Ali, are involved in (between ONE, Chernobyl Children’s Project, EDUN, and countless others) I would find it rather odd that they’re not just giving their time but also considerable amounts of money as well.

        Actually, on a side note, and probably quite trivial, but still a testament to the fact that this guy’s pretty freaking generous – U2 played in Nashville last night. Played a typical, solid gig and when they were done Bono pulled some guy up on stage so he could play “All I Want is You” for his wife. Bono handed this guy his brand-new Gretsch Custom Green Falcon and the band joined in and it was very cool…then when they were done, gave the guy his guitar. Which was about the coolest thing I’ve seen, ever.

  23. Steve says:

    Where the tweets have no shame

Comments are closed.