Last Night's Viewing: Storyville: Inside Job, BBC2
Frozen Planet, BBC1
Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's engrossing, infuriating Storyville film about the biggest heist in history, began in Iceland – a modest but pleasing society with copious supplies of clean energy, a stable democracy and a reliable... if fishy... source of income. Then the economic experts arrived and things got much fishier than anyone could possibly imagine. What happened, we were told, was "one of the purest experiments in financial deregulation ever conducted". And in the space of just a few years a combination of free-for-all and Nordic machismo had wrecked the place. Ferguson's story retold that story on a global level, describing the conversion of the world into a giant casino, where high-functioning sociopaths were unleashed to gamble with other people's money.
For anyone who's read Michael Lewis's recent books on the crash – or simply watched some of the recent documentaries or dramas about those events – this would have been going over old ground with its explanations. But it did it crisply and well, and its real core was the determined attempt to pin down the guilty men, in particular by examining the revolving door between corporate boardrooms and the upper echelons of government. Beginning with Reagan's deregulations of savings and loans companies, it put names and faces to the guilty men. And, while there were moments when its own ideology protruded a touch obviously through the fabric (in particular a suspicious tendency to cut immediately after a hostile question), it was mostly lethally forensic in its approach.
"Sociopaths" was used advisedly, by the way. Ferguson's interviewees included a Wall Street therapist who'd treated investment bankers and could testify to the use of drugs and prostitutes as routine business tools. But those peccadilloes were nothing compared to their carefully legalised assaults on the assets of investors. Even now, it's virtually impossible to get any of them to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, sometimes because they simply refuse to face the camera (the film was punctuated with a rhythmic flow of "declined to be interviewed" title cards, following the names of the most egregious profiteers and apologists) and at other times because they see nothing wrong in what they did. These shabby, immoral, incompetent men still regard themselves as an elite and – more shamefully – are treated as such by current governments.
Sadly, the only people Ferguson could really nail were the academic economists who'd helped legitimise this tulip fever, and it was hard not to feel that he'd ended up with crumbs when it came to calling to account. But he'd generated such an appetite for just reckoning in you that you took the crumbs anyway, as a wishful down-payment on something better. The squirming of Frederic Mishkin, for example, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve and now Columbia Business School luminary, who was paid $124,000 by the Iceland Chamber of Commerce to write an analysis of the country's investment opportunities titled "Financial Stability in Iceland", a document that was oddly listed in his CV (after the crash) as "Financial Instability in Iceland". Was he the real villain here, if a villain at all? I don't know, but for want of anyone more suitable he would do. And to date, not one super-yacht has been sabotaged, not one East Hampton mansion torched by an angry mob, not one executive prosecuted. Where does all the rage go? And what sort of noise will it make when it eventually emerges?
Frozen Planet ended, after seven weeks of wonders, with David Attenborough stroking a stunned polar bear (anaesthetic, not adulation) and a calm but unnerving description of retreating ice. The hedge-funders won't care. You can get at the oil more cheaply and ship the rubbish you make with it through the Northwest passage more cheaply. Screw the planet, let's make a killing.
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