Adam Curtis

Every month or so there is a new scandal - mass snooping by the NSA, allegations of price-fixing by giant energy companies, major banks corruptly rigging interest rates, giant modern bureaucracies like Serco and G4S ripping off the taxpayer, children's entertainers from the past charged with sexual abuse.

But these stories never seem to add up to a bigger picture. They are isolated events . And our reaction is always the same - shock and horror, and then it all subsides and we are ready to be shocked and horrified when the next scandal comes along.

It's like a ritualised dance - or the surprised kitty.


There is a lurking sense that there is a kind of seedy corruption underlying a lot of public life today. But while journalism does a very good job of describing that corruption, it is failing to bring it into a bigger focus. To explain what it is all about.

But sometimes you find an oblique angle that offers a bit more perspective.

Tamara Mellon is best known for creating the Jimmy Choo brand - and empire. She started it back in 1996, and by 2000 it had become an incredible success. It was an entrepreneurial story of our time.

But then Tamara Mellon wanted to expand - especially in America - and so she got involved with the system of Private Equity. A company called Phoenix Equity Partners poured in millions of dollars for a majority stake in Jimmy Choo.

They promised a wonderful vision of the future - but Tamara Mellon found herself trapped, she says, in a corrupted system that ripped the heart out of her company. Private Equity wasn't the noble force for good it pretended to be. And it ended when, what she calls, the ruthless financial sociopaths she had let in forced her out.

Tamara Mellon got angry and wrote an autobiography. It was full of lots of celebrity friends and catastrophic drug-taking - but it was also a full on blistering attack on the system of Private Equity.

Here she is being interviewed about it on Newsnight.I suspect the interviewer wanted to get as soon as possible to talking about shoes - but Tamara is going to say what she wants about the corrupt financial world that destroyed her.


But there is more to Tamara Mellon than just that. She's in the public eye because she's telling one kind of story - about Private Equity. But actually her own life story opens all sorts of other, unexpected doors that in a strange way help pull today's random scandals and corruptions into focus.

In particular one of those doors leads you back over a hundred years to a time in America that was rather like our own. There was a realisation back then that the power of money and vast corporate wealth was overwhelming politics and corrupting public life. But journalism was struggling to make sense of the full dimensions of it - and grab the public's imagination.

Then a small group of journalists took an imaginative leap that enabled them to, not only explain, but harness the scandalous events in such a way that created a powerful reaction among the public. A reaction that led to genuine social change.

The very thing we might be waiting for now.


Tamara Mellon had a fantastic father. He was called Tommy Yeardye (she was born Tamara Yeardye). Back in the 1950s Tommy Yeardye was a central figure in the louche nightclub-showbiz scene in London. He was 6ft 4" but also very handsome. One newspaper described him as having "fists like bricks and eyes like emeralds."

He wanted to be an actor - but spent his time being a stunt double for Rock Hudson and Victor Mature. The turning point for Tommy came when his back was used as a stand-in for Victor Mature's back in a love scene with Diana Dors. She decided she liked his front and they began a passionate affair. The Daily Mail described it like this:

"A splendid male, he satisfied Diana's sexual appetite and did his best to meet her constant need for attention and reassurance."

PA photos


Diana Dors was Britain's "sex symbol". Her real name was Diana Fluck - but her mother said she should change it because there was always the chance that her name would be up in lights outside a cinema - and one of the letters might fall off.

She was a good actress and one of her films, called Yield To the Night is really powerful. But most of the time in the 1950s she played roles that were pantomime visions of sex. One film critic wrote that in an age where sexuality was naughty, repressed and fit to burst - "Diana Dors was a joke about sex".

Here is a montage of Diana Dors at that time.


Tommy Yeardye began his affair with Diana Dors in 1957. What then resulted was an extraordinary drama that was played out in the popular press and gripped the nation. But it happened at a time when popular journalism was coming under new pressures - and the drama would end with an event that transformed British journalism.

An event that also set popular journalism on a course that would end with the phone-tapping scandals of today.

Diana Dors was married to a failed actor called Dennis Hamilton. One of her biographers described him as "an out and out louse, a thug, gigolo and serial philanderer". Hamilton was also paranoid about Diana Dors and he kept her under secret surveillance. He installed a two-way mirror in their flat and hid small recording devices to listen to her conversations.

From one of these tapes Hamilton discovered the affair with Yeardye - and he proceeded to smash up the flat. This culminated in a dramatic scene where Yeardye burst in to rescue a hysterical Diana Dors from Hamilton who was pointing a loaded shotgun at her.

This was reported in the press - who also described how Yeardye drove Diana Dors to safety in a green cadillac owned by a bubblegum tycoon called John Hoey. Yeardye was the hero - "I'm no marriage breaker" he said "I am a good samaritan, I have done only what any man worth his salt would do."

The progress of their relationship - and the disintegrating marriage to the paranoid husband - was charted in the press in the late 1950s. Apparently the person behind much of this was Yeardye himself - and he was, in a way, ahead of his time. With his connivance journalists constructed a roller-coaster story of celebrity chaos and drama.

He even arranged a seance so Diana Dors could try and contact her dead mother.


But Yeardye didn't last. By the end of the 50s Diana Dors had thrown him out - claiming publicly that he had been trying to steal thousand of pounds of her money. But then an event happened in Fleet Street that was to take Diana Dors further down this road of celebrity sexual drama.

The News of the World was in trouble - it's circulation was falling. Part of the problem was television, but also its tradition of titillating court reports - randy vicars caught with their trousers down - was feeling tired and out of date. So early in 1960 Sir William Emsley Carr, the alcoholic proprietor of the News of the World appointed a new editor called Stafford Somerfield.

On his first day as editor, Somerfield called his staff together and - as he described it - "pushed the boat out".

"What the hell are we going to do about the circulation? It's going down the drain. We want a series of articles that will make their hair curl."

In a brilliant book about the British Press, the writer Roy Greenslade describes what Somerfield introduced - "two new forms of provocative content: kiss-and-tell memoirs and saucy investigations"

And right away he found the perfect combination of these in Diana Dors.

Somerfield persuaded her to tell the intimate secrets of her life in a series of articles for the News of the World. He had been fascinated by the Yeardye - Hamilton guns and sex drama and was convinced there was far more to be mined from her life. To get the story he paid Diana Dors £35,000 which was an extraordinary amount for that time.

But he got what he wanted. He sat Dors down with a journalist who recorded everything - and then, as Dors later plaintively complained, took "all the mucky bits" and wrote the story of a scandalous, violent and seedy life.

In the articles Dors described how Hamilton and her had sex parties, how Hamilton used the two way mirror to watch couples having sex - taped them and then played the tape back to the entire household over breakfast the next day. She also described the violence in their marriage, and Hamilton's financial scams.

It was a complete humiliation for Diana Dors, and it shocked the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury described her as "a wanton hussey". And Tommy Yeardye then joined in - offering other newspapers his stories too.

It worked brilliantly though - the circulation of the News of the World soared. But Greenslade argues that by bringing this provocative new content into journalism, Somerfield had also introduced a new "nastiness" into the popular press.

Journalists have always been cynical and "hard-boiled" in their view of the world - but Greenslade says that underneath the froth of silly headlines there was now in the News of the World.

"an underlying nastiness, and a willingness to traffic in human misery"

And he wasn't the only one to think this. In 1969 Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World. By now Stafford Somerfield had made the paper an enormous success and Murdoch kept him on. But a year later he sacked him. Murdoch later explained why:

"I sacked the best editor of the News of the World. He was too nasty even for me."

The BBC managed to film inside the News of the World just after Murdoch took over. Here he is at an editorial conference with Stafford Somerfield.

They were about to publish the sex revelations of Christine Keeler. It led to even more public outrage - and Murdoch is interviewed defending their publication. I've also included a rather wonderful interview with Somerfield filmed just after Murdoch sacked him. He has a great last line.


But sacking Somerfield didn't get rid of the virus he had brought into tabloid journalism. Nearly 20 years later - in 1988 - one of the great tabloid pioneers, Hugh Cudlipp summed up how that nastiness had spread and possessed newspapers.

Cudlipp was no pompous moralist - he was a hard-boiled newsman who understood how tabloids worked. But now they had mutated into something narrower - giving way, he said, to an

"intrusive journalism for the prurient where nothing, however personal, is any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy has been banished in the interest of public profit."


I think it is a very interesting question why the tabloids became so nasty.

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal - it's possible to look back and see how an obsession with exposing hidden lives - especially the sexual aspects - grew and grew from 1960 onwards. It happened during a period of growing openness about sex in society as a whole, but rather than reflecting that openness it manifested itself instead as a weird, vicious prurience.

It may be that we will look back and see it as the reaction of an older generation - both newspapermen and their readers - who found that when the lid was finally taken off talking about sex they didn't know how to deal properly with it. Instead they created a strange and pervy world that finally ran out of control as it became more and more desperate to pry into peoples lives.

Meanwhile in the 1970s Diana Dors became a stalwart of British TV's "Light Entertainment". It was a strange world that mixed old music hall sauciness with this new odd perviness.

Here is Diana Dors on a chat show discussing sexual "signals" with Desmond Morris - who had written a book called "Manwatching". Plus a rather dubious song she sings on a show with Petula Clark - both of them dressed up as little girls.

And as "entertainment" it was also very strange. Here is another song from the Petula Clark show. It is about famous people who were born under the sign of Scorpio.

Petula Clark walks along a row of giant boards - turning each round to reveal another giant portrait of a Scorpio that she then sings to. The list of people she serenades goes beyond weird - and the last one takes you directly to the sinister heart of this odd world.

Heavy entertainment.

Tommy Yeardye got over Diana Dors and went on to marry a beautiful model called Ann Davis. He set up a nightclub in London where patrons could draw nude models as they eat dinner.

He said it was an attempt "to bring art into the average man's life". But it didn't work.

Then he had a lucky break. He went into partnership with Vidal Sassoon - to market his haircare products. Yeardye helped turn Vidal Sassoon into a global brand, and became a multi-millionaire.

In 1967 Tamara Yeardye was born. When she was young the family moved to Beverly Hills - then she was sent back to a posh school in Britain where she met many children of the rich and famous. Like her father she spent a lot of time in nightclubs - but it was in the early days of rave in the late 1980s, wearing DMs and cycling shorts in a famous club called Shoom.

In the early 1990s she drifted into the fashion world, worked at Vogue, became heavily dependent on cocaine and ended up in rehab. But a year later she started Jimmy Choo and her career began.

Then she fell in love. She met Matthew Mellon - a funny good-looking American who was incredibly rich because he was one of the heirs to the Mellon fortune. He too had been in rehab - for overdosing on crack. He claimed that the character of Julian, the drug addicted rich boy, in Less Than Zero was based on him.

Tamara Yeardye described him:

"Matthew Mellon was utterly beautiful and utterly goofy, which was a very endearing combination. He was also damaged goods, wounded and struggling, and that, I think, is where we made the real connection. My mistake was in assuming that, because I'd overcome my addictions, he could too."

Getty/John Stoddart

She became Tamara Mellon. Here is some video of Tamara and Matthew in 2003 working together to build the Jimmy Choo brand at the Oscars. Unfortunately the invasion of Iraq had caused the Oscar red carpet to be cancelled - but Tamara and Matthew keep going - Matthew Mellon shows his own line of shoes, called Harrys.

Neither he nor Tamara look very happy.

Soon after, the marriage began to fall apart. According to Tamara, Matthew Mellon took lots more cocaine and became increasingly paranoid. And as part of that paranoia, by 2004, he became increasingly suspicious about his wife.

What Matthew Mellon then did leads you to the very heart of the giant secret industry that had grown up in Britain to spy on peoples' private lives.

It was a world of private investigators and corrupt policemen that had originally been created to satisfy the ever-growing demands of tabloid journalists for scandalous details about peoples' private lives. A demand that Stafford Somerfield and the News of the World had done so much to kick-start back in 1960.

But what Matthew Mellon's case shows is that this might just be the tip of a much bigger iceberg. A further scandal yet to emerge. That the secret intrusion into peoples private lives, and the surveillance of their behaviour goes far wider than previously thought.

Matthew Mellon got in touch with a company in the City of London called Active Investigation Services - AIS. It was run by a man called Jeremy Young who said he was an ex-detective from Scotland Yard. In reality Young was still a serving Met officer who was leading a double life. He managed to do this by constantly going sick - claiming stress and anxiety, and back pain.

Over 5 years Young took 1,640 days off on sick leave. There are 1.826 days in 5 years.

Matthew Mellon's paranoia was now out of control. He was convinced that his wife was hiding millions of pounds from him in offshore accounts - and he asked AIS to find the hidden money. AIS - who offered a special service called "Hackers R Us", agreed.

They tried to send Tamara Mellon emails that when she opened them would have injected a Trojan virus into her computer. This would them to read everything on the computer.

But at the very same time the police found out that AIS was bugging phones. So the police themselves started to secretly watch and bug the private investigators. It became a gigantic effort - codenamed Operation Barbatus - that lasted 3 years and involved ten police forces and the FBI.

The police raided AIS and seized 60 computers. The detective leading the operation said that what they uncovered was a "national network of corruption" where hundreds of blue chip companies and individuals were using AIS and their network to illegally bug, spy on and hack into individuals' computers.

But then something strange happened - despite all this alleged illegal activity, none of AIS's clients were charged. Except for one - Matthew Mellon. The police burst into his flat and arrested him for authorizing the hacking of his wife's computer.

It was a great trial because Tamara Mellon came up with a brilliant defence for her husband. Quite simply she said that he was too stupid to know what the private investigators were up to. She stood up in court and told everyone that he couldn't even read a comic, let alone a book. His QC helped by producing a psychologist who said that Matthew Mellon's inability to concentrate put him in the bottom 11% of the population.

So he got off.

Ever since Mellon's failed prosecution in 2007 there have been persistent reports that the corrupt Active Investigations network was itself part of something even bigger. The Serious Organised Crime Agency is alleged to have a report with the imaginative title:

"THE ROGUE ELEMENT OF THE PRIVATE INVESTIGATION INDUSTRY AND OTHERS UNLAWFULLY TRADING IN PERSONAL DATA"

It is supposed to reveal a wave of hacking and illegal "blagging" of information over the past few years that goes far beyond the simple intrusion into celebrities lives. Every now and then you get glimpses of this - like with the Tamara Mellon case. But despite calls from MPs and others, SOCA is refusing to publish the report.


If you talk to private investigators who know this world they tell you that not only do we not have the faintest idea of how widespread it has become - but that we haven't conceptually grasped the full dimensions of what is happening.

That at the same time as the police pursue the dodgy private investigators, like AIS, who are bugging and hacking their way into thousands of peoples' lives, the very same police - along with the security services, GCHQ and the NSA - are doing exactly the same to millions of other people. The only difference is that it's legal - because the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, and other laws, allow them to do it.

And while that is happening - all of us are happily allowing giant internet companies to scan all the intimate personal data in our emails and everything we send across social media networks.

It means that we are right to be paranoid. Just like Philip K Dick was.

But there is a paradox here. Because many of those who are shocked by the extraordinary extent of the secret surveillance - radical journalists, cyber-revolutionaries, internet libertarians - are also argueing for total transparency of information.

They not only accept that there is now no privacy personally online - but they believe that the way to bust open the corrupt elite structures of power in society is to release all secret information.

In the past, they say, the old patrician power structure maintained its power by restricting access to that information. Now the technology exists to overcome the gatekeepers and make everything public - as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have shown.

This transparency paradox is part of a much wider present-day confusion. Over the past few years we have been presented with scandals that seem to be evidence of powerful forces that are busy undermining both individual freedoms and the political system that is supposed to protect those freedoms.

These range from the NSA and GCHQ, to global banks, private equity, giant international energy corporations, and parts of the media-industrial complex - like News International (and probably lots of other newspapers as well).

But the scandals do not join up to make a bigger picture. And our reactions are sometimes confused and contradictory - as in the case of transparency and surveillance.

It is as if the scandals are part of a giant jigsaw puzzle - and what we are waiting for is someone to come along and click those pieces together to give a clear, big picture of what is happening.

A hundred years ago, at a time very like ours, a small group of journalists did just that. And the person who takes you back to that time is Tamara Mellon's ex-husband - Matthew Mellon

At the end of the 19th century, Matthew Mellon's great great uncle - Andrew Mellon - was one of the most powerful and richest men in the world. He was part of a small group of bankers and industrialists who not only dominated America - but were using the power of money to undermine, corrupt and control politicians, judges and the whole system of democracy.

They were known as Robber Barons. Men who used new technologies - like the railroads, and global systems of finance - to make themselves wealthier than anyone had ever been in history.Like John D. Rockefeller - who had ruthlessly created the giant Standard Oil of America. Rockefeller now controlled almost all the oil industry in America along with the railroads that transported the oil

And Henry Clay Frick who built the giant US Steel corporation. He was known as The Most Hated Man in America. His special trick was to hire workers from one immigrant group to smash uppity workers from another.

One year he hired Hungarians to break a strike by Italian workers. But less than two years later he had to hire Rumanians to get rid of the Hungarians.

Frick had a great line about this - "The immigrant, however illiterate or ignorant he may be, always learns too soon."

Jay Gould - the railroad king. He was even blunter than Frick - "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half" - he said

And the most powerful of all was the banker JP Morgan. He arranged deal after deal that allowed the Robber Barons to build giant industrial monopolies. They were called "trusts". Here is a famous cartoon of Morgan sitting on his throne holding the reins of the economic power of America in his hands

At the same time American society was rocked by scandal after scandal along with terrible stories of the effect of growing inequalities. Politicians were bribed, policemen arrested and beat up innocent men and women, adulterated food was sold, and terrorists threw bombs. While the gap between rich and poor grew wider and wider.

But none knew what to do about it. The genteel middle classes who believed in reform were baffled and confused.

They knew that all these scandals were somehow a part of the enormous changes that were happening to American society. But they also knew that the new technologies and giant industries were bringing amazing benefits and transforming their world and the way they related to each other. Nobody seemed to be able to understand the true dimensions of what was happening.

The person who did a great deal to bring it all into focus was a novelist, Frank Norris. He wrote a book in 1901 called the Octopus about the tragic fate of small farmers out on the distant prairies.

He was recording the anger of these pioneers who had originally gone to live on the land to realise a dream of individual freedom.

But now they found themselves trapped. Their dream was being destroyed by the power of the Pacific and Southern Railroad which was systematically entrapping and exploiting them.

It's a brilliant and dramatic portrayal of a corrupted society. Norris shows how the railroads got the land for almost nothing in the first place - then forced the farmers to buy it from them at inflated prices. At the same time they charged the farmers more and more to transport their harvests to the ports - until they faced ruin and had to mortgage their land to the financiers behind the railroads.

But there was nothing the farmers could do to fight against this.

Norris describes how the tentacles of the railroad wormed their way into every part of the democratic system - bribing and corrupting judges, members of independent commissions, local and state politicians, and newspaper owners. Every institution that was supposed to help the farmers fight to preserve their freedom had fallen under the corrupt control of the railroad.

It's a wonderful book. Other journalists and writers had described this corruption before - but Norris gave it an incredible clarity and emotional force. It became a sensation because it cut through the confusion and gave a simple, clear picture of what was happening to America.

And it wasn't just the railroads trying to make profits. Beyond them was a new financial system that had realised that by making the farmers their servants in this way they could create a mass-industrialised system of agriculture that could both feed the world (which was good) and also make a few individuals so rich and powerful that they destroyed democracy (which was not good).

Here is part of a television history of America made in the 1970s that explains this extraordinary shift. It's done in an old-fashioned magisterial way - but it's good.

It's also got good stuff about the extraordinary world of the Robber Barons that was built out of this corruption.

One of the people who had encouraged Frank Norris to write the Octopus was the editor of a small, but growing, magazine called McClures that was targeted at the new urban middle classes. He was called Sam McClure and he was fascinated by the amazing public reaction to The Octopus.

He decided to try and push his journalists to do the same kind of thing - but factually, and on a grander scale. McClure wanted to create a new kind of journalism that would grab the imagination and the conscience of the middle classes - and not let go. His aim was to show how the concentration of economic power in America had completely overwhelmed and corrupted politics and the law.

He wanted to use journalism to change the way people saw the world. And through that change the world for the better.

It was an extraordinary ambition. And McClure did it by producing a famous edition of his magazine in January 1903 that shocked America.

In that issue McClure published three very dramatic stories. The three journalists who wrote them became superstars as a result - and their journalism was given a new name - "muckraking".

The first article was by a woman called Ida Tarbell. It was about the illegal methods and hidden corruption behind the rise to power of the richest man in America - John D. Rockefeller.

For two years she researched every detail of how he had created his gigantic oil empire. When she found that documents had been destroyed or curiously taken out of public files - she carried on, convinced that copies of the missing reports or investigations into Rockefeller's activities would "turn up" somewhere.

Tarbell's revelations were a national sensation. McClure told her - "You have become the most famous woman in America - that I am getting sort of afraid of you"

In a gripping narrative Tarbell described how Rockefeller's agents would swoop down on a region like Pennsylvania and use all kinds of ruthless and illegal tactics to take over small businesses and destroy the enterprising entrepreners who ran them.

Like with the farmers, Rockefeller controlled the railroads that carried the oil - but Tarbell showed that he also used bribery, fraud, criminal underselling and intimidation to destroy anyone or anything that prevented him creating his giant monopoly.

Here is some footage of Rockefeller - the bit at the end when he speaks is very weird and spooky.

The second article was called The Shame of Minneapolis. In it the journalist Lincoln Steffens blew open the whole political system that governed the City of Minneapolis. Almost everyone in public office was totally corrupt including the City Boss - Mayor Ames, his henchmen and the police captains who took cuts from businesses across the city. And they used a network of criminals to get the money.

Steffens told it like a graphic novel.

Here is Mayor Ames - and McClures is pretty blunt about how bad he is.

And it was all backed up with close up "facsimiles" of the ledgers that every day recorded the money taken from "the suckers"

The third story was a big surprise. It told how the trade unions had been corrupted - manipulating and deceiving their members. It revealed in shocking detail how striking union-members were attacking and sometimes killing workers who refused to go on strike.It was surprising because it took the side of miners who refused to strike.

It was a series of very moving first-hand testimony from miners and their families about the terrible complexities individuals discovered at the heart of bitter disputes. Strikes that seemed on the surface to be a simple battle between labour and capital.

It was - McClure said - about "dramas of human suffering, human loyalty and human fear - the feuds in the coal fields, the bitterness between union and non-union men, the uncompromising hatred opening wounds that only death can heal".

At the end of the issue Sam McClure wrote an extraordinary editorial. It explained what all three articles meant when taken together

It was simple and very powerful. McClure said that the journalism showed that everyone had been corrupted - the best lawyers in the country who are hired to advise corporations how they can get around the law, judges who use tiny "errors" to let people go free who in any common-sense judgement were totally corrupt, politicians who were in thrall to the money power, and police forces who had become organised networks of crime.

But more than that - McClure said - all the other institutions that were supposed to stand up against such a wave of corrupt power had been overwhelmed. From the church to the colleges - the institutions of learning.

"They do not understand"

And he finished:

What McClure meant was that it went beyond corruption. The real problem were the old institutions that could not understand or deal with the new powers that had emerged in society.

He was calling for the ordinary people to realise they had more power and more understanding of the problems than any of the old institutions. And that they should come forward and force politicians to take control and deal with the problems in a new way.

And they did.

The new journalism that McClure began spread like wildfire - and politicians took notice. They were led by the new President, Theodore Roosevelt, who decided to use the law to break the monopolies - or what he called "The Octopus" that was strangling democracy.
Here is the veteran BBC journalist Alistair Cooke describing what Roosevelt did.

Out of this came new laws and new kinds of bureaucracies designed to deal with the money power. And it bred new kinds of public servants who believed they could take on giant monopolies because, for the first time, they understood what was really happening.

To give you a sense of these kinds of people here are parts of two good documentaries made in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia.

One is about is about a lawyer fighting for the rights of the coal miners in an area that is totally controlled by the mining corporation. He is called Harry Caudill.

Caudill cares deeply about the plight of hundreds of thousands of miners and their families who have been pushed aside by mechanisation in the mines. He takes the camera round the remote valleys and into the houses of the miners - driven by a moral certainty that he must help them confront the power of the mine-owners.

He is a figure from another age. I love the way he explains the inequalities of power to a woman whose house keeps being hit by chunks of rock. The rocks are blown out by the dynamiting going on all around her. She stands there patiently listening to his progressive vision.

I looked up what happened to Caudill. He spent the rest of his life fighting the corporate power in the Appalachian mountains. But by 1990 he was suffering from severe Parkinson's disease - and he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

The other is about the story of the killing of Jock Yablonsky. He had won the election to be head of the United Mine Workers, but immediately after his victory he, his wife and his daughter, were all shot and killed.

Everyone is convinced that the corrupt old leadership of the union did the killing - and the film sets out to investigate who did it and why. It is a great portrayal of a hard, corrupt world of union corruption and violence in West Virginia. And the interviews with the crony of the corrupt union boss is both sinister and funny.

In both these films there are echoes of that distant time of the original muckrakers - but also of the powerful new mentality that their muckraking journalism did so much to bring into existence.

Of course our time is completely different from the age of the muckrakers. There isn't the terrible poverty - nor the violent strikes where workers were gunned down by private armies.

But in other ways there are similarities. New technologies and giant financial systems are transforming society. They bring with them great benefits and exciting new ways of living - but at the same time there have been massive increases in inequality.

In Britain - the top 1 percent of people now pay 30 percent of all income tax. Thirty years ago the top 1 percent paid only 11 percent - and that was at a time when the taxes on the rich were much higher. At the same time the average wage has been static for ten years. All new increases in wealth, from productivity, go only to the rich.

The politicians seem to be helpless. The economic crisis of 2008 has revealed scandal after scandal in the financial system but there has been no real reform. When HSBC was revealed to have been laundering money for Mexican drug cartels no-one was prosecuted because doing so "might create instabilities in the system".

And scandals come and go like a series of blows that we experience as disconnected events - each one evoking shock and horror. And nothing happens.

A famous American Historian called Richard Hostadter wrote a study of the muckrakers. he said that before McClure's famous issue there was:

"a diffuse malaise - and it was the muckraking that brought that diffuse malaise of the public into focus"

I think there is an equally diffuse malaise today - waiting for a new kind of journalism to bring it into focus. Like with McClure's it won't be just a catalogue of shocking facts - it will be an imaginative leap that pulls all the scandals together and shows how they are part of some new system of power that we don't fully comprehend.

That maybe - like the farmers on the prairies - we have all become the components of a new kind of machinery of social organisation.

Computers, "financial engineering" and credit, social media, algorithms that predict what you want, NSA surveillance, giant new holding corporations called Master Limited Partnerships - all of these surround us and wrap us into a complicated modern web. Some of it is wonderful, other parts of it are threatening - while even more parts are just incomprehensible.

And behind it is the new money power - giant institutions, and individuals that can bend politicians to their will. The repeal of the Glass Steagall act in 1999 - which arguably did a great deal to create the financial corruption of our age - is just one example.

While the old institutions that grew up over the past hundred years to protect us now find themselves unable to comprehend or cope with the new systems of power. Politicians, regulatory institutions, intelligence agencies, the mainstream press, the police, the BBC, the colleges of academia- all of them, as McClure said in 1903:

"They do not understand"

And cut off from the real power struggles - these old institutions are starting to prey on each other. Leaving us both confused and undefended.

One newspaper editor writing about the loss of the independence of the farmers a hundred years ago summed up the new system:

"The farmers farm the land, and the businessmen farm the farmers."

Maybe today we are being farmed by the new system of power. But we can't see quite how it is happening - and we need a new journalism to explain what is really going on.

Meanwhile here is Diana Dors singing a beautiful, but sad, song in her garden at night. She has summoned Russell Harty and some others to celebrate the opening of her new swimming pool. Part of her extraordinary later life as the consummate Light Entertainer.

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 45. Posted by adwest87

    on 18 Jan 2014 17:32

    Do you have any idea what this new form of journalism would look like? Could you be the modern day muckraker we need?

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  • Comment number 44. Posted by Tom Roche

    on 18 Jan 2014 00:36

    @Adam Curtis: I bow in your general direction, keep up the good work.

    @Steffan Llysdinam: "we need new heroes [like Nelson Mandela] to pick up the baton of human rights and take on the fight." Actually Mandela is part of the problem: after defeating apartheid, he and the ANC capitulated to international neoliberalism. Hence South Africa in 2014 remains almost as economically unequal as it was in 1994. Patrick Bond's "Elite Transition" is an old but still useful guide to that process.

    @New Western Mysticism: "can the BitCoin decentralize wealth in the not so distant future?" No, bitcoin mining is increasingly as capital-intensive (and energy-intensive) as other forms of wealth creation, given the compute power required. (@gaz: quantum computing is no way out here, because bitcoin mining is inherently competitive.)

    @NausikaDalazBlindaz: "Omidyar founded PayPal." False: PayPal was created by Confinity (Peter Thiel et al), then bought by X.com (Elon Musk et al), then bought by eBay (Omidyar et al). By that time (2000) Omidyar had transferred operational control to Meg Whitman (1998), though he remains chairman (and might very well be able to reverse PayPal's blockade of Wikileaks, though the US federal government is certainly heavily involved in the matter).

    @theartteacher: "someone once said that violence only multiplies violence[;] it is possible to challenge power without [violence]." Challenge, yes. Win ... not so much. This is another lesson Mandela taught us. The ANC was exclusively committed to nonviolence (on the model of Gandhi's Natal Indian Congress) for 50 years, completely without success. Then, after Sharpeville, Mandela et al formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (aka MK) and began the armed struggle to victory. Nonviolence resistance should always be one's first resort; when it is one's *only* resort (worse yet, when one proclaims that), one incentivizes one's oppressors to escalate. This does not mean political violence is inevitably successful, merely that an exclusive committment to political nonviolence is at least as unsuccessful (especially when confronting entrenched power unchallenged by superior external forces), and probably inherently so.

    Political nonviolence can be successful, but usually only either as a facesaving alternative to political violence, or as an appeal to superior external force. Gandhi was Britain's way out of India, but the Raj would have cheerfully continued to suppress satyagraha were it not for WW2 and the horrifying (to the Brits) spectacle of Netaji's Indian National Army. King made an attractive figurehead for the US federal/northern elite effort to end Jim Crow (and thus better mobilize for the Cold War, esp in African media), but when (after 1964) King turned against war abroad and de-facto educational and residential segregation at home, he was run out of Chicago, vilified in the corporate-funded media, and shot down in Memphis. And when political nonviolence confronted the Afrikaners (with the overt support of the UK and US), it failed even more spectacularly.

    There is no absolute good but absolute good: all actual good is a matter of context and proportion.

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  • Comment number 43. Posted by emilj

    on 5 Jan 2014 05:10

    Since the new monopolies are mostly immaterial, and the immaterial is protected by immaterial rights, it follows that the new monopolies are founded on immaterial rights. How did they get so much richer than the farmers? The answer is astoundingly simple - farmers can't copy crops. The fact that a digital product can be copied infinitely, making it extremely profitable even at 10$ value, is what is ripping the world apart. People flock to cities because the immaterial companies are based in cities - farms would never create a competitive economy since they have to farm for every single 10$. People flock to cities, and they flock to their computers where the digital goods thrive. It has boosted consumer tech to one of the biggest desires of the modern man - fuelled by rock bands and film makers who never suspected they'd become the contents of a 'tech age'. No one knows how to make a perfume themselves, or a gadget, and why would they? They probably think it would violate a patent. The greatest lie and mistake in the modern age is that copying has become seen as theft, while it is no such thing at all. Copying is human nature. It is what we always do to adapt and survive. There is nothing inherently evil in it, and yet it has been criminalized to 'protect artists' or, more honestly, boost the economy artificially by making every popular 10$ CD worth a million times that in the marketplace. In reality, it should remain 10$ and be copied by anyone fit to copy it. That's just my suggestion for juridical change. Don't act against the law. Be against it. Please upvote me if you agree, I'd like to know how many agree with me.

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  • Comment number 42. Posted by theartteacher

    on 4 Jan 2014 00:34

    @Fugger - I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s what Adam points out - in many ways the circumstances people face now are not as savage as those in the past. But remember that in the past people accepted these circumstances, saw them as natural and not savage and unacceptable. The job is to try and change people’s view so our current conditions are equally unacceptable. Maybe we move forward only small steps; I hope we can go further than that.

    I’m not sure he’s proposing that the changes of the past came from a single periodical, and the other posts he’s characterised the barriers there are to moving forward in broader ways.

    On violence - someone once said that violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. I love that, and it’s true. I think it is possible to challenge power without that. It may be the response, but it needn’t - and I’d argue it can’t be - part of the solution to our current malaise, for reasons far brighter and more articulate people than me have stated. For a start we’d lose. And I think one message from AC, or what I take from some of his work, is that you cannot separate means from ends, much as we would love to. The Syria post is just an amazing example.

    Someone clever also argued that the fight for justice and freedom is never won, there is never a final battle, and it will have to be a continued effort and assertion of moral principles. That’s true too. There will always be the possibility of weakness in the face of one’s own power. That’s just a part of human life, we’ll always have to guard against it. But it’s good to know your enemy.

    Leaders can afford to marginalise people. I’m obsessed with the benefits rhetoric in this country, and the total annihilation of the facts involved in the issue. I think it’s a powerful example of that marginalisation, and of creating division for deeply cynical ends. But it’s a indictment of our democracy, and ironically I think, a reflection of the weakness in our ideas of individual freedom. Why should anyone be marginalised? Our narrow democracy guarantees that will happen. I’m not just talking about bringing in PR or something (although that’d be a start). We should be looking to find out how we can engage everyone in politics and decision making. There’s a guy called Alisdair MacIntyre I just discovered. And there are ideas like Participatory Politics. I have a lot of time for these. There are options.

    Although the ‘austerity consensus’ might be able to be readily understood, we seem to have to failed to have understood it. The reasons are pointed out beautifully in this post, and in Ad’s posts from The Curse of Tina onwards I think. Journalism has a big part to play here - you’ll struggle to find a good critique of austerity in the mainstream press but (and I don’t want to get too Marx-y) it’s pretty clear that’s it’s a kind of class warfare essentially. Why aren’t the class that are being mugged reacting? We’re back to the same issue - they don’t know, or know and don’t feel they can change it, or know and can’t come up with an appropriate and challenging response. People aren’t mugs. They know Goldman are getting insane remuneration, whilst their own kids can’t get more than 12 hours a week work at minimum wage. Someone can take that immediately situation in their lives, and rather than allow it be portrayed as immigration or something (which is obviously false, and the politics of division again), they can explode it into a grand understanding of the conditions under which we live. I really have absolute faith in that possibility.

    I should also apologise - I’m not getting at you. I just want to strongly make the point that we should go past cynicism and (in my opinion) realise people’s capacity to recognise injustice and change things.

    I didn’t know Alistair Cooke, but I do now. Thanks for the tip.

    And Happy New Year to everyone. It’s gonna be a good one, I’ve got a feeling.

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  • Comment number 41. Posted by jiajohn

    on 1 Jan 2014 05:10

    Great awesome article Adam. I'm a big fan of yours.

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  • Comment number 40. Posted by eggy

    on 31 Dec 2014 21:40

    Another thing this resonates with is the passing away of John Fortune... one of the few people in the British media at least who seemed capable of seeing through the noise and "getting" the bigger picture, drawing people's attention to it through great comedy/satire.

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  • Comment number 39. Posted by eggy

    on 26 Dec 2013 07:26

    This is an insane piece of work, and is going to take some digesting coupled all the wine and turkey consumed while reading this!

    Very interesting that you bring up the point about the damaging effects of private equity, as it was only yesterday that I found myself revisiting your documentary about Sir Jimmy Goldsmith (The Mayfair Set Ep3). Both in that documentary (round the 8-9min mark) and this article you touch upon the issue of how repealing specific elements of legislation pave the way for the loopholes to be exploited in the respective speculative bubbles that followed.

    The Glass-Steagall is of much significance here because Phil Gramm's work acted as a catalyst in both in the expansion of Enron and the mortgage CDO crisis of 2007/8. Let it be noted Gramm's wife, Wendy, sat on the board of Enron after working as a commodities securities regulator prior!

    Why is this significant? Well, the Volker Rule provisions (which form a greater part of the Dodd-Frank Act, which some see as a partial reintroduction of Glass-Steagall) are being debated 'as we speak' and are getting I and T dotted and crossed. What interests me is the fact that only in the last few days has it emerged that private equity firms have recently been except from much of the red tape.

    Couple this with the Sino/US race for building infrastructure in Africa (especially in regards electricity, rare earth minerals, cheap labour, and recently completed fibre optic connections to South Africa) this is starting to smell very similar to the 80's junk bond crisis and the tech bubble surrounding Enron all rolled into one! Private equity firms are very much in the business of cheer leading for the US industrialist of the African power grab, in much the same way Enron and Tyco were involved in building similar infrastructure in India.

    I am beginning to wonder if before us we have the foundations for another huge scandal waiting to happen many years down the line when the cheap money tap supplying the private equity firms turns off. Naturally journalists will be incapacitated to take a historical perspective or see the bigger picture and thus when the time comes will never connect the dots until it's too late.

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by Sfdnebulae

    on 26 Dec 2013 01:03

    Thank you for an intriguing intertwined story once again Adam, your articles and documentaries are inspiring.
    it still amazes me how we fail to see the connections, the present is a consequence of what has passed and will repeat with just enough camouflage to seem new. Like space and time, we are part of the fabric and every action whether a borrower or baron has consequences. So much Coolade has been drunk by the masses with the disinformation and most importantly slavery to the financial system that even during what alcoholics call a 'A moment of clarity', we are worried that the temple may come down over our heads if we fight it. We are not the selfish gene but a collective of corporeal sentient automatons which are accountable for every action. What gives me hope when I read and watch all the injustices that can never be balanced by humans, is my monotheism and the covenant with the creator that a judgement will take place and every atom will be redressed. Otherwise without this rebalance I would drown in the injustice present all around us. I implore you to continue in outing truths in your unique way, it's fresh clean water in the sea of Coolade.

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by MaxComms

    on 25 Dec 2013 23:51

    Adam. what a fabulous piece!!! I was blown away - and particularly by all the Diana Dors references because I was , did you know?! the first Producer of her FIRST Chat Show for Television - for Southern Television as it then was... her show was called "Open Dors" and I did the first of 2 series - and every week I had to come down to her place in Sunnyvale and go over the show with her and discuss her guests so that house was v well known to me! as was she! I LIKED her, she was a good sport and yes, a good actress and hostess too - I wonder if you ever saw her show?? it would have been 1980/81 season... :-)

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by EBr

    on 24 Dec 2013 19:58

    Great piece, as always! Regarding a new journalism, any chance you (Adam Curtis) will join the Omidyar Group (which includes Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill among others)? Your work would seem to fit in nicely. Your skill in tracing individual and institutional powers, whether public or clandestine, as they craft and constrain the world and our understanding of it is remarkable.

    This sort of reporting is especially effective because it is affective. It often reads like Shakespeare or Homer or Hugo, getting to the heart of the dramatic found within the everyday and the ubiquitous absurdity that often passes by without notice. Hope you, and they, continue with this style of journalism and that broader publics gain access. Cheers!

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