Writing in today’s Guardian, the musician and mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concerts accuses the World Service of a “total collapse of standards and systems”, threatens it with legal action and calls for the sacking of the reporter behind the story, his editor and the head of the World Service, Peter Horrocks.
Geldof also uses the Guardian’s Comment is Free website to lash out at the journalist Rageh Omaar for penning a “ridiculous” opinion piece for the site on Monday in which the former BBC correspondent defended the corporation’s story and its right to investigate the fate of millions of pounds of aid money.
The row began last week when the World Service broadcast an Assignment programme in which a former Ethiopian rebel commander claimed that in 1985, only 5% of the $100m destined for famine relief in the northern province of Tigray reached the hungry.
The report, by the World Service’s Africa editor, Martin Plaut, also carried an allegation from another former rebel that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front had tricked aid workers into giving them money meant to buy food for the starving.
Geldof and the Band Aid Trust are talking to some of the world’s biggest charities – including Oxfam, Unicef, the Red Cross, Christian Aid and Save the Children – about reporting the BBC to the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom and the corporation’s governing body, the BBC Trust.
But Geldof has now announced his intention to go further.
“We will also take a view on what, if any, legal action we may take both against the journalist in question and the World Service in general,” he writes. “Martin Plaut, [the BBC World Service news and current affairs editor] Andrew Whitehead and Peter Horrocks should be fired. There should be an immediate investigation into what went wrong, steps should be taken to rectify the identified faults and the World Service must work very, very hard to re-establish its trust and hard-won reputation as the world broadcaster of excellence.”
In his article, Omaar had argued that while the interplay of politics and aid was complicated, the BBC felt it had uncovered “credible evidence” during a nine-month investigation and was entitled to broadcast its findings.
He added: “As a Somali, looking at what happened in my country during the US-led humanitarian intervention in 1992 and what is happening today, what I find unacceptable is that a humanitarian operation can be elevated to the status of being above criticism.”
Geldof, however, has hit back at Omaar – and the media as a whole – for continuing to cover the allegations, which he insists are baseless.
“How can you deign to lecture on being above criticism, prompted by the criticism I meted out last weekend to your incompetent mate and his associates at the Beeb, while falling back on the implied assumption that you and by extension all journalists, are above the criticism yourselves? Get it straight, pal – you are not. Either as individuals or an organisation. It’s about time a little more humility was allowed into your closed, self-regarding media world. But like the bankers and the MPs these days, you lot just don’t get it, do you?
He also asks Omaar why Plaut’s allegations have only now surfaced.
“Band Aid has been under the most intensive scrutiny since and most particularly during the mid-80s. Quite rightly too. Pretty weird, however, that not a single one of the dozens of journalists who have travelled with me or covered Band Aid ‘discovered’ Martin Plaut’s ‘story’.”
A BBC spokesman said the World Service would continue to defend its report.
“This was a well-researched programme and the BBC stands by its journalism,” he said. “We are happy to repeat that there is no suggestion that any relief agency was complicit in any diversion of funds”.
However, a senior BBC source told the Guardian that there was concern about the amount of criticism that “a relatively obscure documentary [which] didn’t even mention Band Aid” had attracted. He said: “We are concerned we are going to come under fire. We hear from sensible people in the aid business that ‘of course money went missing – we are just concerned about the 95% figure’ [but] Bob Geldof’s exaggeration that ‘not a penny went missing’ looks ridiculous to us”.