The News of the World, naturally enough, was the first to catch a sniff of the yarn. And spread it, complete with blurry pictures of the dallying lovers snapped by a bazooka-sized telephoto lens, across several pages last weekend. Then everyone else was on board the tale. Intrusive reporters were dispatched to door-step the participants, and while male columnists dedicated yards to discussing why Hutchence would throw off Helena Christiansen ("£500,000-a-year Danish supermodel, 25") for Paula ("a curvy size 10 with a tiny waist, great legs but a pierced belly-button") female columnists wondered why Paula would want to leave a man who, according to one, "is rumoured to be the most well-endowed in the world". Even the leader writers could enjoy themselves: not even Band Aid, chortled one, could patch up the marriage now.
The reporting was characterised also by the wide preponderance of unnamed sources corralled on its behalf. "A friend disclosed" to the Mirror that Christiansen was "distraught at the news"; "pals of the Aussie singer" delivered the information that Hutchence was denying any relationship; "sources close to the Geldofs" revealed that the couple had conducted "an open relationship" throughout their 18 years together. It has to be like that, because Geldof's friends are far too loyal to gossip about him in the papers.
Anonymous tittle-tattle masquerading as evidence, columnists pontificating, leader writers moving in: this story had all the characteristics of a more familiar marriage in distress. It was, in fact, the final proclamation of something we had long suspected: Bob and Paula had, at last, transmogrified into royalty. They had become the Prince Charles and Princess Di of popular culture.
The process began 10 years ago with Band Aid. Geldof, charged by an anti- institutional drive which had seen him rise in the time of punk, single- handedly fokked his way through a bureaucratic forest to launch a wholly worthy, wholly praiseworthy life-saving charity binge. He made compassion hip. We all wished we could have been as effective as him.
Perhaps the only unhealthy by-product of raising £100m from the hitherto jaded youth of Britain was that at the same time he unconsciously created a new phenomenon: the rock establishment. Until Band Aid, rock stars did not feed the world, they dallied in hotels with the partners of their friends and colleagues. In its wake all sorts of things changed: Sting switched from being a blond, blue-eyed guitar hunk into being the saviour of the rain forest, the constant partner of that Brazilian Indian with half a dinner service in his bottom lip; Eric Clapton went to fancy dress parties with duchesses; Phil Collins, risibly, became godfather to junior royals' offspring.
But Bob remained high in our estimation, a man representing that cocktail of respect and affection which characterises a proper hero, a man elevated by our admiration for his achievements into the unimpeachable position occupied by royalty before they decided to flirt with the modern media. He was, in an age devoid of modern role models, a man we could look up to.
Ten years on, Geldof finds himself in a strikingly similar position to the Prince of Wales, who also, incidentally, never carries money and expects others to pick up his tab. Like Charles he is married to a woman who is most famous for being his partner, a woman constantly torn by a flirtatious spirit and an innate sense of motherhood. And like Charles he feels trapped by a role he never really sought. I interviewed him a couple of years ago and expressed surprise that he was about to go on a tour of Germany to promote his latest record.
"It's my job," said the man who had not scored a hit of significance in this country for 12 years. "It's what I do. The Saint Bob stuff isn't what I do, this is."
But if Bob Geldof has achieved a royal elevation, it is a far more sustainable, sensible, modern style of royalty than the traditional form. A far more meritocratic form, almost Scandinavian in approach.
Not for him, for instance, a courtship based on bloodlines and aristocratic convenience. He met his future wife when she gave him a blow-job in the back of his limo. Such an early establishment of compatibility has meant that, unlike the Waleses, the Geldofs have been able to take an amicable trial separation in what appears to be a thoughtful and mature manner.
In the bringing up of their children, too, who is more likely to deliver sane and well-balanced juniors? The Waleses, who, dressing their princes alternately in baseball caps and tweeds, use them to conduct a public battle of values; or Bob Geldof, who, when he found out that Fifi or Peaches or whichever of them had a Take That pillow, showed his amused disdain by sitting on it and farting? And Charles, hemmed in by protocol and a thousand years of suffocating precedent, wails constantly about how something must be done - about poverty, the environment, Richard Rogers - and never does anything except set up a committee. But when can-do Geldof sees something is wrong, he just does it, showing an almost Cantona-esque disdain for the swathe he cuts through the establishment.
And the gap between the two - the old and the new (even though they are only six years apart in age) - was never more apparent than in their reaction to the reporting of their marriage breakdown. When confronted by the News of the World brandishing the information that it had uncovered an affair between his wife and some delicious James Hewitt of a more desirable man, Geldof did not hide behind hypocrisy, self-pitying tears and Jonathan Dimbleby. No, he sent a fax back to the paper oozing sarcasm and disdain.
"Having lived in the eye of the tabloid storm for 18 glorious years," it ran, "both [Bob and Paula] fully understand what a fantastic scoop [it is]. And to avoid the inevitable ructions in its wake, the Geldof family have embarked en masse and together for a well-deserved winter holiday." Rising above it all: a truly aristocratic response.