Last night's viewing - Masters of Money, BBC2; Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course, Channel 4; Food Unwrapped Channel 4
Stephanie Flanders' Masters of Money is a clever, responsive bit of commissioning. It ticks off two of the Reithian obligations to inform, educate and entertain (with the best will in the world, you can't really imagine it seducing away the die-hard fans of New Tricks). Unfortunately, it also finds itself in a bit of Corporation Catch 22, given the subject matter.
The problem is this. In the middle of an economic crisis the like of which hasn't been seen in decades, there's no question that an explanation of the contending economic theories will be useful to viewers. Flanders' three-part series offers a beginner's guide to Marx, Hayek and Keynes, all three of whom, she explained at the beginning, recognised the immense power of capital and trade in the world and had ideas about the best way to control it to produce a better society. "Can they help us find a way out?" she asked, a question we'd all like to know the answer to.
Unfortunately, as the BBC's economics editor, Flanders is also committed to a certain impartiality of approach. And since all three of her masters of money are still closely identified with party political approaches to the current crisis, she can't really tell us whether she thinks they were right or wrong. She can hint a bit, but any contribution from an expert saying a particular theory has just been vindicated will have to be balanced by another one saying exactly the opposite.
This was particularly conspicuous with last night's programme on Keynes, because he's very much a Plan B hero at a time when Plan A isn't looking as if it's working very well. Cue Joseph Stiglitz to make the case that current government austerity measures fly in the face of Keynesian wisdom and will cause "an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering". And then cue Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs to argue almost exactly the opposite. Which leaves us pretty much where we were before.
Still, allowing for the frustrating fact that Flanders can't come off the leash and tell us which of her pundits she actually thinks is making sense, her film was interesting enough, providing plenty of raw material for those who want to argue that government has a role in adjusting the levers of the economy. It wasn't just that Keynes got his first big prediction right (that beggaring Germany after the First World War was the best way of ensuring that you'd get another one). It was also that his insertion of "animal spirits" (social morale, essentially) into the dismal science chimed closely with one's intuition about the connection between psychological and economic depression. Or not, depending on your politics. Most viewers will have ended more knowledgeable but just as confused as before.
Not sure why Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course is going out at 5pm while Food Unwrapped, which seems to be aimed at eight-year-olds, has taken the 8pm slot, but that's how Channel 4 has decided to play it. The former is a perfectly serviceable basic cookery programme, in which Ramsay does his trademark thing of dispensing with as many verbs as he can get away with ("Flour IN....Butter IN") while the latter is an exploration of what goes into processed foods.
There's a quite funny bit where they ring up the consumer helplines of the products in question, usually revealing that the consumer helpline is a clueless person Googling for answers. But the explanation sections are a combination of laboriously over-stretched travelogue and boastfully dim-witted consumer tests. Would a traditionally cured ham taste better than the "formed ham" product that had had brine massaged into its fibres, wondered one presenter. "I think the only way to determine that is to eat a slice of both of them at the same time," he concluded. An eight-year-old might have found it funny, but it left me baffled.
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