Two cheers for Stephen Fry on BP’s spill

Stephen Fry has visited the coastline and the waters of the US’s Gulf of Mexico and declared them to be, well, what? The victims of a spill, obviously. Maybe even the victim of the clean-up, for all we know. But not, he feels, the victim of any obvious post-accident wickedness or folly on BP’s part. That was, I think, the take-away message of Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill (BBC2, 7 November 2010). But the interest of the programme is not limited to Fry’s being fairly sensible.

I hazard a guess that the BBC producers who set up the show’s logic hedged their bets rather well. They sent Mr Fry with Mark Carwardine, by the look of his web-site a signed-up conservationist right-on. They must have known Mr Carwardine’s general attitudes (we might even risk calling them prejudices). They could have assumed that if Carwardine was persuasive on location, Fry could cheerfully go along with him. But if  Carwardine over-egged things, Fry could be a foil to him. (Sorry about the plethora of kitchen metaphors.)

As things turned out, Carwardine kept stressing that he was deeply sceptical that BP could say anything honest or fail to taint any clean-up operation with their own PR agenda. He was, indeed, only happy when he was in his comfort zone: a storm-tossed Greenpeace ship replete with researchers who had were pretty sure they had proved that the clean-up operation had polluted crab larvae. And he found a Louisiana boat-owner who claimed that BP owed him for a couple of marine engines ruined by oil-pollution on a BP clean-up contract.  This was material whose usefulness would depend on further investigation, and (in the case of the crab larvae) will take months to assess.

I am on secure ground, though, when I say that Mark Carwardine’s use of the record of the oil industry in Nigeria’s Niger Delta was deeply flawed. This was clearly deployed as the killer argument that Big Oil is hideously careless and if it is behaving itself in the US delta lands, that is only because it is being watched. Out there in Africa’s wetlands it has wreaked havoc. The truth of the Niger Delta is much more complex, and involves criminal and political sabotage of oil facilities; the difficulty international oil companies have in disciplining the state oil companies with which they must partner; and the problem of clean-up under fire. It is difficult to capture the role of Big Oil in the US Gulf in a short, populist programme, it is impossible to be useful about its role in Nigeria in a minute or so.

Of course, the whole narrative arc of the Fry show was absurd, and his own role in it hardly less so. Only a naive, prejudiced, old-style Green could spend more than a few minutes researching the Gulf spill aftermath and not realise that the Gulf’s shores and waters have so far seemed to escape extraordinarily well the ecological disaster which was widely predicted to follow this latest of a long line of environmental insults. The only question of importance for Fry’s adventure was: what are the odds of future, delayed problems?

It is equally obvious to any thoughtful and informed person that there is an entirely reasonable debate to be had between experts as to what will happen next. One might reasonably believe that the BP spill will have long term effects ranging from the negligible to the apocalyptic.

One can reasonably, like Carwardine, think that the oil industry should never have been allowed to operate in such a risky way in such a risky environment with so little research as to dealing with an accident. It is a little irrational to blame their doing so solely on their own nastiness, granted that regulators ought to have stopped or tamed them. One can reasonably, like Carwardine, blame BP for sounding a little optimistic about what has happened to the “missing” oil in the Gulf. But it is a little churlish not to note that the industry view is shared by plenty of others.

I rather agree with Fry that the aftermath of this accident was “human-shaped” not “fiction-shaped”, and I rather agree that this is an important message to get out. But I insist that there is a species of the infantile in Stephen Fry having to spend an hour of TV time being surprised that the story on the ground is as he found it. Or to put it a little more subtly: either Stephen Fry was being a little infantile in needing to have this pilgrimage of conversion, or the producers were being disingenuous in thinking that we the audience could only be led to his conclusion (which we would find oh-so counter-intuitive) if it was framed as a conversion.

Either way, Stephen Fry is well-placed to be a public intellectual of parts, but I fear he will have to be more demanding of himself or his producers if he’s to really command out attention.

Still, if I were in (and what bliss to lead!) BP’s PR team, I would be thrilled that the BBC had painted us more or less in true colours.

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Publication date

08 November 2010


On TV & Radio