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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Adam Curtis and the Independent Commission on Banking

This was timely, since it coincided with the report of the Independent Commission on Banking about reforming financial capitalism (aka the Vickers report), a report that even commentators at the FT think was neutered by lobbyists.

Now some find the documentaries of Adam Curtis problematic. Although employed by the BBC, he is not an archetypal Reithian to the extent that his films seem deliberately to eschew balance. The Curtis technique is  rather to openly impose a narrative on to the fragmented film cuts that he sloshes around in the bowels of the BBC archive. Curtis imposes a particular interpretation on to the mass of propaganda churned out by an institution which itself is central to British self-understanding and to how Britain is perceived. I imagine there are many, particularly those who are fond of Reithian ideals, who find this approach to documentary unnerving, even propagandist. His blog on the role of lobbyists and think tanks is a vintage example particularly since it feels like the UK state’s attempt to find a re-accommodation with financial capitalism has been heavily influenced by lobbying.

Banks don’t do PR. They don't seem to be particularly interested in justifying their work. Bank CEOs do not answer questions on the Today programme and when they do appear in public sessions, such as select committees, they rarely give a good account of themselves.We never see hedge fund CEOs defending their reputation on the TV, nor are the directors of derivative trading companies keen to stand in the media spotlight.
The exception among the UK financial class is probably Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers Association, a former right wing MP, who’s job it is to defend the banks’ reputation. Listen to this great exchange between Knight and the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Oakshott on the BBC's Today programme earlier this year. Knight is on the phone from a ski resort, perhaps aware of the dubious message this might send to an audience that is deeply sceptical about the financial sector. Never one to miss an opportunity for hyperbole, Lord Oakshott takes the chance to wind up her for deigning to take time ‘off piste’ and talk banking reform.

I suppose if there is a ‘lesson to be learned’ (since 'learning a lesson' is the default, abstract and contentless position adopted by all organisations when they are publicly crticised in the media) is that it is bad PR to try to defend the financial classes down the line from Klosters.
On the other hand, as the Vickers report and Adam Curtis’s documentary confirm, it probably doesn't matter anyway. Banks don’t do PR, because they don’t need to, instead it seems they influence policy behind the scenes, through ‘lobbyists’ or ‘public affairs’: an industry that increasingly embodies a form of instrumentalized class warfare.

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