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TV UK, 16 September

Big Oil: not every interesting issue is a human-interest story.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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The ‘Storyville’ strand on BBC4 and BBC2 comprises a range of documentaries featuring in-depth and sometimes quirky stories from around the world. The Curse of Oil (BBC4, Mondays at 9pm) is both in-depth and quirky, reflecting the peculiar place of oil in the contemporary political mindset.

Despite its name, Monday’s opening episode, ‘Rich and Poor’, was anything but an examination of the economics of oil. While ostensibly it was about the ‘paradox’ that the discovery of oil in a country generally fails to enrich most of its inhabitants, there was no attempt at a systemic explanation for this (not that one would have been hard to come by). Instead, the programme focused on the ethics of the oil companies. The first half looked at the iniquities of Texaco’s conduct in Ecuador, mostly in the 1970s, while the second half flagged up the same firm’s (now ChevronTexaco) charitable projects in Angola.

In both cases, the credulity of the narration was jarring. We were shown by tribespeople in face paints and head-dresses how Texaco had polluted the Ecuadorian rainforest, but there was little discussion of what this had to do with the bigger question of ongoing poverty in the country – it was simply supposed to show that the oil companies were the bad guys (while the army of lawyers prosecuting Texaco got off rather lightly).

The programme’s happy-news celebration of ChevronTexaco’s support of village schools in Angola left the same central question unanswered. Yes, it’s very nice if oil companies perform good deeds, but that’s not really how economic development is supposed to happen. The suggestion that global and national inequalities of wealth are down to the ethics of corporations underlines the naivety of current thinking on these issues, for all the excited talk of globalisation and anti-capitalism.

The next two episodes look at the Caspian pipeline, which has been cited as a motive for the war in Afghanistan, and at the controversy over exploiting oil reserves in wildernesses such as Alaska. A similarly human interest-based approach is unlikely to shed much light on either.

Maggie O’Kane’s heavily-trailed Dispatches programme on drug rape (Channel 4 on Monday) also failed to get beneath the surface. Even judged as a piece of crusading journalism, it was curiously unpolitical. O’Kane came up with at least a couple of cases of drug rape that seemed fairly convincing, but it was simply police incompetence that had prevented the perpetrators being convicted. In another series of assaults, the police had worked hard to build a case, and secured a conviction without physical evidence.

This is all very interesting, but ultimately the competence of the police is as banal as the ethical codes of oil companies. What was missing was a deeper investigation of whether drug rape really is on the rise, and how it resonates in a generally anxious culture. Instead, the programme can only have contributed to viewers’ fears with its sensationalist treatment of the subject.

There are fascinating and important documentaries to be made about how crimes like this test the limits of the criminal justice system, not to mention about whether society can rely solely on any criminal justice system to guarantee people’s safety, but hyping up the risk of such attacks does nobody any favours. Human interest it may be, enlightening it is not.

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