Putting two documentaries together gives new answers 

23 March 2007 tbs.pm/149

Recently we’ve been watching two interleaved documentary series on BBC Two by two award-winning people: Adam Curtis’s stunning three-parter The Trap (Sundays, 21:00); and Are We There Yet (Tuesdays, 19:30) by former World In Action and Panorama journalist John Ware.

Curtis’s series shows how, during the Cold War, mathematical game theory was applied to play nuclear brinksmanship with the Soviets, by making assumptions that human beings only cared about personal gain and very little else. These theories, originated by people like mathematician John Nash and subsequently applied to economics, both in the US and, under Thatcher, John Major and particularly Tony Blair in the UK, led to the idea that virtually every aspect of modern life could be opened to the free market. You could, for example, give workers in the NHS targets and give them the ‘freedom’ to reach those targets how they liked.

Well, as you might expect, they cheated (and presumably still do), reducing waiting lists by having someone on staff whose only job was welcoming people when they arrived at a hospital, they having then been ‘seen’ and thus off the list. To get more people apparently in beds, and fewer waiting on trolleys in the corridors, they took the wheels off the trolleys to classify them as beds and reclassified the corridors as wards. In the police, crime targets were met by reclassifying serious crimes as merely ‘suspicious activities’ which didn’t get recorded in the crime stats. We know what happened when Birt introduced the “Internal Market” at the BBC – it was cheaper to nip down the street to buy a CD from HMV for music for a programme than get it from the BBC library. And so on. In every case, the ‘free market’ leads to a free-for-all: corruption, profiteering, inefficiency and poor service.

Curtis’s series has taken a whole load of things – that you knew were wrong, that you knew were going on, and that you knew were in some sense linked, you just didn’t know how – and put them together, showing how they are indeed linked by a common, failed, simplistic, mechanistic, absurd socio-economic theory. And then showed us how, rather than fix the fundamental error, governments have tried to patch up the system by ever-increasing monitoring and surveillance – hence the answer to the series’ subtitle, “What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom?”

John Ware, at the same time, has been exposing, it turns out – and perhaps without being aware of it – how this absurd theory has worked its black magic on Britain’s public transport sector. This week he looked at buses and exposed the free-for-all in Manchester (typical of cities other than London), where anyone can start a bus company, some rely on drivers who can’t speak English, and there are many different companies running profitable routes (while less profitable, but badly-needed services languish) but you can only use the ticket issued by the right bus company on the right bus and there are no cross-town tickets. Subsidies rise and rise but the services get worse and worse and people are leaving the buses in droves – and the local authority can do virtually nothing.

Now at last the government is beginning to realise that something has gone wrong, but rather than fix the root cause (by, for example, letting local authorities run the bus services, or at least require interoperability and give them the ability to allocate routes) they want to add more oversight. In the case of rail services, the government has yet to notice, apparently, that it just doesn’t work any more.

The situation is different only in London, where Ken Livingstone has worked wonders simply by having control of exactly the factors that nobody controls in cities elsewhere. Bus usage is up dramatically, for example. But even here, there are too many bus companies – and in fact, less well-known, too many companies are involved in the Underground system, where operating companies can, for example, pay their financially-related maintenance companies whether or not they do the work they’re paid for.

Indeed, Livingstone comes over as the voice of reason every time he appears, and as the only man who is getting things to work despite being lumbered with government-imposed private operating companies. At least he has control over how they work together, unlike Manchester and other cities.

Again, the obvious answer is at the very most one company (preferably the local authority) running public transport in a city. And hey, how about one publicly-owned company operating the railways, run by people who know the industry and are in it to provide a service, not make a profit? Over three quarters of the British population want re-nationalisation.

But nobody is listening, despite the fact that it’s obvious that the ‘free market’ simply means a free-for-all, and Adam Curtis can give you a carefully-reasoned proof of why. Both series are eye-openers and his especially so.

? If you missed the rest of the series, The Trap is available on YouTube.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error

Author

Richard G Elen Contact More by me