The Man Who Knew Too Much

Colin Wallace

 

James Stewart? Doris Day? Alfred Hitchcock? No. Instead meet Colin Wallace, a retired real-life spook who got heavily involved in the UK government’s undercover operations in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, blew the whistle when his paymasters started asking him to start smearing democratically elected politicians, then wound up in jail on a ten-year stretch on a confected charge of manslaughter. Strangely, or perhaps it’s not strange at all, it’s a tale from recent history with an urgent contemporary relevance.

Michael Oswald’s documentaries to date have all sought to pull back the veil on the hidden workings of the world. Finance was the focus in 97% Owned, Princes of the Yen and The Spider’s Web but in The Man Who Knew Too Much Oswald concentrates on the shady world of everyday espionage and government overreach, the point where the elected administration of the day starts to fancy itself as the state – its “l’état c’est moi” moment.

Softly spoken Wallace talks us through his remarkable story – as the Troubles got underway, the Northern Ireland native was drafted in to the UK government’s psy ops team because of his local knowledge. From the early 1970s onwards he started using friendly journalists to drip-feed stories into the press, stories designed to destabilise the terrorists’ narrative. Some of these were lightweight, some bizarre – the glut of newspaper articles on satanism in the region were all Wallace, for example – others more routinely linked terrorism to the Vatican or the Soviet Union, whoever happened to be plausible. Disinformation, misinformation, anything that muddied the water.

Good at his job, Wallace’s technique for getting a story up and running was one that’s even more prevalent today in the world of all-pervasive social media. He would write pseudonymous letters to tiny local papers raising the issue of, say, satanism, then use those same letters as “evidence” of what was being talked about at a local level to punt the story further up the news chain. The entirely synthetic story would get legs.

 

One of Wallace's successful stories
One of Wallace’s successfully planted stories

 

Wallace’s story gets darker from here as it forks in two different directions. One involves a Loyalist organisation called Tara, headed by William McGrath, who operated a paedophile ring out of the Kincora Boys Home. The Northern Ireland authorities knew what was going on but were reluctant to hand a propaganda victory to the Republicans and so kept a lid on the organised abuse allegedly involving high-level officials, a scandal that continues to resonate.

The other is Wallace’s involvement with what became known as Clockwork Orange, an attempt in the mid-1970s by rogue elements inside the UK security services to destabilise the elected government by smearing politicians, all the way up to the prime minister.
A patriot but also clearly a believer in the rule of law, Wallace had not signed up to protect paedophiles nor to help facilitate a right-wing coup and so started to speak out. For his efforts he was fired and eventually wound up in jail, convicted on a trumped-up charge of having killed the husband of a woman he was said to be having an affair with.

He served six years before being released. More years went by before his conviction was overturned.

It’s a murky tale, at its sharpest in Wallace’s early days. The focus blurs as the story shifts to the boys home and the smearing of UK politicians. As the voluble Wallace becomes cagier (the chill winds of the Official Secrets Act), Oswald’s array of journalists and historians are called on increasingly to plug the gaps with informed speculation.

Wallace might be the focus of this film, but its actual subject isn’t him but the UK state. Nor is it even really the UK state, but elements within it acting on its behalf. These people remain unidentified, though Wallace knows many of the names – as recently as February 2019 Wallace was urging the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to answer some of the many unanswered questions. Silence.

Knowledgeable though Oswald’s witnesses are, the absence of key witnesses means the whole story cannot be told here. But a film about fake news, election tampering, a high-level paedophile conspiracy and the deep state, how much more contemporary relevance do you want?

 

 

Click here for screenings of The Man Who Knew Too Much

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire

Member of the European Parliament Eva Joly

 

An urgent, informative film asking all the right questions – or how the rich people stole all the money

 

 

 

Here in Brexit Britain we find ourselves in a peculiar situation. In spite of having done pretty well out of the European Union, what with various rebates, opt-outs and special deals, fifth richest country in the world and all that, the country suddenly rebelled, and stormed out of the arrangement in a strop, angry about something that no one can quite articulate – it might be the straightness of bananas or immigrants or democratic accountability, or something else entirely.

Meanwhile, the political left largely appear to have lost their connection to their working class powerbase, and now talk in a language that most people don’t understand (mysterious references to “social issues” really don’t cut it). This same former powerbase, meanwhile, seems to see no contradiction in buying arguments about “freedom” and “control” from people who live here but are domiciled for tax purposes in other countries (Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail); people who actually live in tax havens (the Barclay brothers of the Daily Telegraph); or people who live in rival superstates (US citizen Rupert Murdoch of News International). And, most notably of all, from people based over here but whose undeclared allegiances are Atlanticist (how UKIP’s Nigel Farage and his paymaster Arron Banks love being photographed with the new US president).

How we got here isn’t the subject of Michael Oswald’s latest film, but The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire does shed some light on the miasma of weird that has taken hold of the zeitgeist, when, after 40 years of a “free market” experiment that has seen living standards for many stagnate or fall, people seem to be voting for more not less of the same thing and are blaming “globalisation” for policies masterminded and put into effect by their own governments.

In a previous film, 97% Owned, Oswald and co-writer Mike Horwath lifted the lid on the smoke and mirrors operation that is money – 97% of which is created by banks out of thin air every time they make a “loan” to somebody. If you’re wondering why property prices are so high…

In his Princes of the Yen, Oswald mainlined the work of economics professor Richard Werner in a wide-ranging film which, among other things, forcefully made the point that the most spectacular economic miracle in the post-War world came about not by the application of free-market principles, but by targeted lending by the Bank of Japan to specific industries in that country. This is known in the UK as being in the business of “picking winners”, something to be avoided at all costs.

Both these films painted a picture of a topsy-turvy world where things were not as we are often told they are – in one, money is created by magic and isn’t something that has to be finessed by finance ministers dancing the austerity tango; in the other, the command economy appears to have had its successes too – Japan, with no natural resources, becoming the world’s second richest country using principles that are socialist in everything but name.

The Spider’s Web adds to the picture, not by revealing that black really is white, but by showing that straight is actually rather crooked. Its thesis is that as the British Empire collapsed, the City of London, that square mile of financial mystery at the heart of the UK capital, transformed itself from being the financial auditor and organiser of a global system of colonial governance into the centre of Britain as a modern financial power.

Along the way we are reminded of the special relationship between the USA and the UK, one example of which was the run on the pound organised, it’s suggested, by the US when the UK refused to do its bidding in 1956’s Suez Crisis. Suez marked the point when the British Empire finally had to admit that the game was up – it was no longer a world power. On the upside, the Crisis gave a fillip to the emerging London Eurodollar market, a system outside the jurisdiction of the US Federal Reserve and at arm’s length from regulation by the Bank of England. This led, by accident and design, to London becoming second home to many US banks, the centre of a global network of trusts, and the spider controlling an archipelago of tax havens based in former outposts of the Empire.

If the Swiss use banking secrecy laws to hide money, the British use trusts to do the same work, says John Christensen, a former economic adviser to Jersey, a British tax haven parked in the Channel Islands. By setting up a trust, an individual, company or even vast agglomeration of companies can claim that this shell company operating out of a PO box in Bermuda, the Caymans or wherever, is the “owner” of their assets. And by being “foreign-owned”, the companies or individuals in question duck their tax obligations in their home country.

This has been of enormous use to rich people the world over. Headlines are periodically grabbed by various African dictators as they strip-mine their countries of wealth and ship it out to one tiny Caribbean island or another. But there are people closer to home. We see Prime Minster David Cameron – whose father ran just such a trust, the source of young David’s leg-up in life – making windy noises about “rooting out corruption” in the global system of trusts, when in fact the racket is almost entirely run from London.

“Up to half of all hidden offshore wealth may be hidden” in the UK’s tax havens, says anti-corruption campaigner and Member of the EU Parliament Eva Joly. These trusts operating out of former British colonies are nominally regulated already, by the Bank of England, who simultaneously claim that the territories whose finances they oversee are independent. It’s a Janus-facing system that works for the Bank, the territories and the wealthy individuals who benefit.

This is where the missing trillions of dollars are sitting that ought to be building roads and hospitals, in Africa most notably, but also to a large extent in the developed world.

Oswald has some erudite and passionate witnesses – the economist Michael Hudson, who claims that the entire British economy is supported by drug money, crime and illicit income. John Christensen, meanwhile, is a former Deloitte’s accountant, a director of the Tax Justice Network (www.taxjustice.net) who lectures on the iniquities of international finance – “They were all,” says the gamekeeper turned poacher, talking of his time advising companies in the Channel Islands, “involved in some kind of tax dodging or something worse.” Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, brings the zeal of the crusading journalist to his contribution, refreshingly using words like “steal” rather than anything fancier and less precise. And there’s the redoubtable Eva Joly, who wants a public register of the beneficial ownership of trusts – who gets the money –  which would be a quick and efficient way of shining a light into some very dark corners. “Ordinary people are paying taxes; the rich are not,” she says. “This is leading to populism”. Which ties the film neatly into the “where we are now” of the bizarre global swing to the right. And without getting too conspiratorial about it, no wonder certain powerful forces were keen to move the UK away from the EU.

Made for only £4,000, closely argued and consisting mainly of talking heads interspersed with stock archive footage, The Spider’s Web comes across a bit like an Adam Curtis film made without the armies of researchers and technical crew. If Oswald is a bit slow to get to the “why here? why now?” that is most documentaries’ leaping-off point, he does admirably map a vast terrain that could accommodate at least ten other films – on subjects as various as why big companies have such a cosy relationship with the taxman; the system of organised theft that is the Private Finance Initiative (or versions of it the world over); or the unregulated power of the global accounting behemoths such as Deloitte, KPMG and PwC.

If you live in the UK or the US – bastions of what is called the Anglo Saxon version of capitalism – you live in countries that have over the past few decades “financialised” their entire economies, the lack of investment elsewhere leading to a feedback loop of de-industrialisation. Michael Oswald’s film argues that there has been no inevitability to this process: it was a deliberate exercise to make the rich even richer while incidentally impoverishing the rest. And he manages to show how this global con-trick has been wrought without coming across as some cheerleader for the politics of envy. That’s quite a trick.

 

 

Watch The Spider’s Web on Amazon Prime Video

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

 

 

Princes of the Yen

Downtown Tokyo

Halfway through watching this simple but fascinating documentary, by the same team that made the equally eye-opening 97% Owned, a friend turned up. Instead of saying “How are you?” or “Wanna cup of tea?” (I’m writing this in the UK), I said, “God, I’m watching this amazing documentary about economics in Japan and how the authorities there deliberately sabotaged the country’s economy, and the whole 1980s boom and bust was a fix, and the…” and on I burbled.

It’s not the reaction you’d expect to what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, delivered in steady-as-she-goes voiceover. Yet the story the film (subtitle: Central Banks and the Transformation of the Economy) tells is remarkable, and is essential viewing if you’ve any interest at all in economics or politics.

And here’s the story it tells. The wrecked post-Second World War economy of Japan was restored to rude health not by the introduction of a free market economy (as the books tell us) but by the Bank of Japan (BoJ), which, using a system of “window guidance”, directed investment into whichever sector (or even company) that it saw fit.

Neo-classical economics dictates that a system like this will not, cannot, work. And yet Japan, with little in the way of natural resources and comparatively small in size, became the second largest economy in the world.

Part two of the story tells how, in the 1980s, this amazingly successful system was deliberately sabotaged for ideological reasons by people in the BoJ who believed that Japan needed “structural reform”, and that reform wouldn’t become politically or socially acceptable without a crisis. So, the BoJ engineered that crisis, first by jacking up the window guidance credit quotas, which led to a lot of excess money sloshing about, which led to the huge 1980s property boom. The documentary pauses here to remind us of some of those absurd factoids that were all over the media in the late 1980s – that the value of the gardens around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was more than the entire state of California, for example. And then it continues, telling us that in 1990 the crisis came – the stock market dropped 30 per cent in one year alone, leading to a protracted economic freeze which Japan is still recovering from now. Between 1990 and 2003 real estate prices fell 84 per cent, the stock market by 80 per cent, 212,000 companies went to the wall.

Part three tells of the BoJ’s bogus attempts to restart the economy in the 1990s – it pumped money in on one side, then took it all out again on the other – all the while burbling about the need for “structural reform”, this of an economy it had itself destroyed. Then the neo-con Prime Minister Koizumi was elected in 2001 and there followed a period of even more “structural reform”, during which the bank balances of local banks were wiped out as they were bankrupted and forced into nationalisation.

Enough explanation of what the film says. Though I will just say that it goes on to detail how this disastrous formula was first exported to South East Asia, where it killed the Asian Tiger economies, and was then repeated in Europe, where from 2004 the European Central Bank sat back as “bank credit growth in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain increased at over 20 per cent per annum.” And which were the countries that needed the bailouts?

I might be mistaken but I there appears to be very little, if any, new footage in this documentary. If that is the case, then Princes of the Yen is a triumph of archive remixology. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of authoritative input, thanks largely to the wealth of TV interviews given over the years by economist Richard Werner, the coiner of the phrase “quantitative easing” whose book Princes of the Yen provides the film’s title and thesis. The cogent, amusing and bright-eyed Werner’s arguments could be boiled down as “this is madness”, or even “this is treason” (my interpretation of his sentiments) and I wished at times the film had been more explicit about what it seemed to be suggesting: that this “structural reform” brand of economics is US cultural imperialism by another name. And I wished it had either better incorporated its bigger argument – about the dangerous unaccountability of central banks – or even left it for another day. But for people like me, who are interested in economics but don’t have the vocabulary or conceptual framework to take part in the discussion, Princes of the Yen fills in some of the gaps, without bamboozling with jargon, graphs or too many statistics. And even if you are flatly, 100 per cent sure that every word the film says is wrong, the questions it asks, considering the economic hole we are currently climbing out of, are ones that need answering.



Princes of the Yen – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014