Saturday, August 01, 2009

U2: We probably wouldn't understand the tax implications, would we?

Disappointing, although not surprising, to see U2 getting a pitifully soft ride from The Guardian's Film & Music section yesterday. The headline promised much:

Ego warriors: U2 speak out on rock-star hypocrisy

But underneath, Dorain Lynskey failed to deliver. "Speak out on"? It was more "moaned a little bit about" or, perhaps, "tutted and shrugged".

U2 were not going to wrestle with the issue, but instead just muttered how unfair it is for people to point at multi-millionaire property developers and ask about how they seem to be shaping poverty policy:
"A little information can do a lot of harm," [Bono] says, his voice hoarse from the previous night. "A lot of people don't know what I do so they think, 'He's just turning up in photographs with starving Africans or some president or prime minister.

Let's take this as being honest - that Bono thinks that the detractors of his activism are doing so because they only have "a little information". Here, surely, is a platform for him to expand on the information we have - perhaps to tell us how his ideas are shaped by many hours spent studying data from the UN and WHO, or to offer a more detailed defence of Project Red's claims that it is primarily for the benefit of the poor, rather than the brands involved.

But oddly, Bono doesn't seem to want to expand the weight of information upon which we are to make our judgements.
We don't like that. Rock stars telling elected officials what to do, and then they run back to their villas in the south of France. Fuck 'em.'"

You have to respect Bono a little for his use of language - "we" don't like that. As if he's not part of the rich and powerful, Bilderburg-and-Gleneagles gatherers. He's one of us, isn't he? We all of us own hotels, don't we?

Is it even true that "we" don't like rock stars behaving that way? People using their fame to dress down power is a glorious thing: Geldof facing down Thatcher was pretty much widely applauded; Martin Bell routing The Hamiltons; even Esther Rantzen riding Margaret Moran out of Luton South has been accepted as a good thing.

The difficulty is the shift from standing outside offering advice, to being inside making policy. And that's where anyone - rock star or not - taking up an unelected position of power has to be worrying. Surely?

Bono, though, is still not actually explaining why there's anything to be worried about:
But, he insists, "if you look into it you think, 'This guy works two-and-a-half days a week at this, not being paid for it, and at cost to his band and his family, and doesn't mind taking a kicking.'"

The cost to U2? Given they still seem to be churning out music and banking ticket receipts from increasingly bombastic tours, there doesn't seem to be too much of an impact. The price his family pays? That, of course, I can't comment on, and since - again - Bono provides no elucidation of what he means, it's hard too.

But spending two and a half days on voluntary work? Apart from the slightly distasteful waving of receipts meant for the recording angels, are we supposed to be impressed that a man who can make an income simply from waiting for the bank to deliver interest received statements spends half a week doing something else? We'd all... alright, many of us would spend time doing more voluntarily if our living could take care of making itself.

And even then: what is this supposed to mean? Effectively, Bono's argument is "people criticise my apparent influence on international development issues because they distrust my unelected status and don't know what it is I do. But if they knew I spent two and half days influencing international development - unpaid - why, that would make things different."

That doesn't really work, does it? It's like Ming The Merciless saying "look, people don't realise I put an awful lot of the day-to-day work to one side to develop my death rays. I'm putting in the hours" when asked what he's doing with death rays. It misses the point a little.

Notably, when the interview touches on being Irish during the end of the last century, the answers become clearer, considered and touching. Even more notably, it's the bit where Bono is silent and the others get to talk.

Before too long, though, the interview is back to asking Bono about his pumping hands while Iraq was having depleted uranium scattered over its children.

It's not too difficult to understand how this could happen; a defence of how his influence was never deep enough to stop the powers pushing for the Iraq war, and that it was important to chase an impossible end at the cost of what could be achieved elsewhere. The slippery, soul-burning trade-offs of power.

Instead, Bono first tries to suggest he was somehow conducting secret operations against the invasion, before then waving his hands around and saying "ach, you know, we'd all be waging an illegal war if we'd been them":
"It's very hard for me to keep quiet about anything," he says, smiling. "I'm more used to putting my foot in my mouth than I am biting my hand." He says he was known "quietly" as an opponent of the war but refuses to demonise its architects. "There are people who will be walking differently for the rest of their lives because of their decision to invade Iraq," he says. "Remember, 9/11's not far behind. They really are nervous about that. And Blair, too. He doesn't want to be Chamberlain – the guy who says everything's going to be fine. They see this darkness on the horizon and they make a really, spectacularly bad decision. I did say to Condi [Rice], 'Think about what happened in Ireland. The British army arrived to protect the Catholic minority but when you're standing on street corners in hard hats and khaki you very quickly become the enemy.' But I wasn't there for that. I had to keep my focus. You're asking, 'Don't you speak up? Don't you get out on the streets?' I gave up that right once I was in a position of voicing the desire to stay alive of millions of people who had no voice."

So, then: Bush and Blair had to, you know, because of 9/11, and I told Condi 'ooh, that's going to blow up in your face', but I'm the voice of the voiceless so I couldn't say anything'.


You'll recall that earlier this year Larry Mullen had some choice words for his partner about hanging out with such people. Oddly, he seems to have piped down now:
Mullen, however, admitted his unease, earlier this year, over Bono consorting with "war criminals", a moment of candour that now makes him wince. "My only regret is that I might have made it easier for his critics to throw some more stones at him, which was really not my intention," he sighs. "There's no question of rolling over in my views; it's just looking at the bigger picture. You can argue it up and down but in the end you have to stand up and go, 'This works.'"

When Bono wasn't in the room, his views were quite simple and clear. Simplistic, perhaps, but unequivocal. Now, it's regret for having helped the critics, apologies for doing so, and some gritty fudge.

Lynskey pretty much sits back from doing much more than transcribing this far through, but as the question of tax turns up, he does offer a hand to the U2 team:
Bono may be U2's self-appointed flak-catcher but he worries his activism opens his bandmates to criticism. "They're getting part of the kicking because they have me in the band. So I feel for them. I do." An example: nobody gives a damn about, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' accountancy practises, but U2's tax move was roundly slammed as rank hypocrisy.

But Dorian, given that the Chilis aren't attempting to direct how governments spend their tax take, there's no reason for people to get so exercised over them. But when Bono is influencing decisions being made by governments over spending, the decision to organise tax affairs to minimise the amount you share is fair game.

When you lecture others on how you must do your bit, employing accountants to ensure you do as little as possible is rank hypocrisy.

But, come, let's give Bono the chance to explain:
Bono rubs his temples and sighs. "It's very difficult. The thing I probably regret is not talking about it more but we agreed in the band not to. Which is annoying. What bothered me was it's like you're hiding your money in some tax haven and people think of the Cayman Islands. And you're campaigning for Africa and transparency – of course that looked like hypocrisy. People whom I've annoyed, people who wished us to fail, they finally got what they thought must have been there in the first place. It was a hook to hang me on." He claps his hands forcefully and points. "'We got him!' You could, if you wanted, get … y'know … it could get you going. You look at it and say, 'Well what have you done?'" His flash of annoyance passes. "People are just trying to do the best they can. You can't do everything."

It's not clear if by waffling about how it's the Netherlands and not the Cayman Islands and the Palinesque "ooh, they just wanted something to throw at me" self-pity is intentionally designed to try and make it look like he's giving an explanation of why the U2 tax regime is designed to take cash away from the exchequer of the country which raised him, educated him and now provides the roads and infrastructure that allows his businesses to thrive; or if Bono actually thinks it really is an explanation.

Meanwhile, in a school in Dublin:
-Sorry, it's one book between two, because Bono is paying his taxes in Amsterdam now
-Well, at least he's not paying his taxes in the Cayman Islands. That would really make the book we don't have a book we can't afford

So: it annoys you when people point a finger at your tax arrangements. But you still haven't explained why it's wrong for them to do so?

But you know what? Bono still thinks he's his own worse critic:
U2 chose more interesting targets than other bands. Your own hypocrisies. Your addictions, but not to the obvious. Your ego." He emits a hoarse chuckle. "I think we made our enemies very interesting."

Well, interested, perhaps. But it's still more by your actions than your music, Mr. Vox.

There's no room in the interview for questions of planning regulations in Dublin or Los Angeles, nor for the environmental carnage wrought by lugging a giant claw-type stage around the planet. But then U2 are busy people, and only have time to not answer so many question.