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An Education in Oil

How can the media best engage the public on fossil fuels? Documentary or drama? The BBC has been attempting both.
This article appeared in Vol. 12, No. 6 - 2016

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It seems the BBC has been on a bit of a mission. As the UK grapples with declining North Sea production, the rise of Scottish nationalism and the possibility of becoming a Frack Nation, the corporation has broadcast a three part radio documentary series on the impact of North Sea oil and a series of seven stand-alone radio dramas, set in oil hot-spots around the world, past, present and future. The aim, it seems, has been to raise the public’s consciousness of this industry as it faces unprecedented challenges. It is an attempt that should be applauded, although the results were mixed.

  • Deepwater Horizon explosion, Gulf of Mexico. (US Coast Guard)

Documentary or Drama?

A Crude History of Britain, presented by James Naughtie, sets out to remind us of the extraordinary technical challenges faced by North Sea engineers in the ’60s and ’70s. However, it is the cultural, political and economic impacts of oil that are likely to register more deeply with listeners. It is fascinating for those of us who were not there to hear of the gold rush atmosphere, and the impact of Americans with their Stetsons and pints of Dom Perignon arriving in an isolated, traditional Scottish town. It is probably a shock to most British listeners to hear how very dependent the country was on American expertise at the time.

Nigerian writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. The series is packed with small surprises as it rolls through recent British economic history. Who remembers that in the 1970s there was no taxation structure for oil exploitation and the country was, apparently, ‘taken to the cleaners’ by the Americans? Who remembers that the industry was pleading with government to keep the oil in the ground as the exchange rate shot up and exports fell? Now that the UK looks enviously at Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, it is interesting to be reminded how successive embattled governments, both  left and right, were saved by oil revenues. Did we know that the UK was invited to join OPEC? Or that it chose to see off Nigerian competition by staying outside the cartel and operating through its Saudi allies? I didn’t.

The seven dramas were perhaps less successful in their mission to inform. Salient episodes of recent ‘oil history’ were fictionalised with moderate success – the deposing of Mosaddegh, the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the start of the 1990 Gulf war, and the 1975 kidnapping of Sheikh Yamani. Added to this were the purely imaginative attempts of a young journalist to discover ‘the truth’ behind the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the disappearance of an environmentalist in Alaska and a futuristic look at the UK’s fracking industry.

In contrast to the documentary series, each episode seemed to be bursting out of its 40-minute slot, each play ambitiously attempting to both educate and entertain. However, the pace and scope of each drama, the dropping in of informative ‘asides’ and the inevitable inclusion of some casual, light-entertainment sex made many of them hard to follow.

Engaging the Public

Iranian politician Mohammad Mossadegh. What will listeners have learnt? Perhaps that oil is at the top of the tree when it comes to politically messy, dangerous, don’t look-down industries. That’s not news. Is it useful to remind the public, through fiction, that the British and Americans manufactured witnesses to get the public behind the first Gulf war, that blow-out preventers only ever work 50% of the time, that the world, including the Middle Eastern oil states, has abandoned the Palestinians, that a range of environmental disasters is likely in the near future? The answer can only be ‘yes’, although this series succeeded through the most brutish hammering home of basic truths. The finer points were lost in the ambitious, fast-paced plots.

So the question remains: how do you get the public to engage with this most critical of industries? The BBC should be applauded for its attempts, although on this occasion the calm narrative of documentary stayed too safely in the uncontroversial, domestic arena, while the dramas probably lost most of their listeners somewhere in their vaulting ambitions. But more please: worldwide, the public needs to understand where its energy comes from and the implications of its consumption.

Clearly, both drama and documentary have a role to play.

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