December 9, 2011 6:46 pm

Put your mouthpieces where the money is

Shows about the period of subprime-and-after display great interest in the scary and scandalous but little beyond that

Journalism may be the first draft of history – but when do we get the second draft? Readers get it fairly quickly, television watchers less so. Even documentaries about Ancient Greece tend to take a blow-by-blow approach – journalism in the past tense.

Charles Ferguson’s feature-length documentary Inside Job (BBC2 Wednesday), which was awarded an Oscar earlier this year, told the US side of the credit crisis beautifully, using Matt Damon’s voiceover commentary and the testimony of a great number of key players and witnesses. The chief villain was Henry Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive whose time as US Treasury secretary would be defined by a government bailout that his own lobbying for deregulation rendered more or less inevitable. In the documentary’s often-used phrase, Paulson “declined to be interviewed”.

RBS: Inside the Bank That Ran Out of Money (BBC2 Monday) was another talking-heads voiceover documentary that laid bare a tortuous story with great clarity and concision. This time the villain was Sir Fred Goodwin, and those testifying to his guilt included those who had put him into power. The programme charted Royal Bank of Scotland’s meteoric rise and meteoric fall, starting in 1999 with its successful takeover of NatWest and ending with the catastrophic takeover of Dutch bank ABN Amro in 2007. This was one of the biggest takeovers in history – though Goodwin requested only “due diligence light”; it soon emerged that ABN Amro was awash with toxic assets, and RBS was forced to issue additional shares to make up for the capital borrowed to overpay for ABN Amro and for the almost £6bn lost in the credit markets.

The general note was one of confusion and regret. “There are lots and lots and lots of people who have actually been affected,” said one former executive. “I don’t think that needed to happen.” The narrator started by saying that the bank’s collapse was “something that didn’t need to happen” – and this is what the programme showed.

A business journalist in the RBS documentary crisply evoked the economy in those days: “Debt layered on debt leavened with debt sprinkled with debt.”

The new series by Robert Peston, The Party’s Over: How the West Went Bust (BBC2 Sundays), explained that the east went boom over the same years because of prudence, low costs and saving. But in identifying “deeper causes” for the shift of power from west to east, he went only as deep as 1978, from where he worked his way forward, charting the parallel stories of Deng Xiaoping in China and Reagan-Thatcher. Peston also talked to workers in Shanghai and Birmingham, giving the programme the kind of anecdotal detail deemed essential in the modern television documentary.

Such detail formed the backbone of Vanessa Engle’s Money (BBC2 Tuesdays), the second episode of which considered a few couples and their approach to earning, spending and saving. There was usually a conflict within each couple between pragmatism and idealism, “paranoia” and “frivolity”, with one geared towards future security, the other towards acquisition. The series is small in scope, but it gave some impression of how the individual borrower felt about money and what place it had in people’s lives. Indeed, it was more engaging on the subject of its subtitle (“Couples”) than its title. The subjects squirmed their way through confessional interviews, often revealing more than they intended.

For all their competence and agility, these programmes got the viewer only so far in terms of understanding the western (or Anglo-American) relationship to money during this period of its history. Inside Job showed “How We Got Here”: Peston asked “how did we get into this mess?”; the RBS programme showed how the collapse happened, and that it could have been avoided.

Yet the closest that Inside Job, the most expansive of the programmes, came to scoring insights of a more trenchant kind was when Willem Buiter, chief economist of Citigroup, talked of a “pissing contest” between the major banks over the trappings of success (private jets, for example). The leading figures were “all men, incidentally”. For “incidentally”, read “not incidentally”.

Exercises in fact-finding and storytelling serve their purpose, but for the longer view we need popular financial history informed by other kinds of historical inquiry, and by psychology and social anthropology – an approach less fetishising of detail, more concerned with putting those details into an illuminating long-term context. As things stand, television programmes about the period of subprime-and-after display great interest in the scary and scandalous, but little beyond that.

The financial crisis is so complex – and so defined by complexity – that it requires a great deal of energy just to unravel what went on, and to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that it was foolish and unnecessary. This is a detail-intensive exercise, and there isn’t time in a one-hour programme to consider why the mistakes were made. But to say that the credit crisis occurred because the housing bubble burst, or because the banks lent too much money, or because people borrowed too much, is like saying that the August riots occurred because police in Tottenham killed a man named Mark Duggan.

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