‘The biggest white-collar crime in history’


When US director Danny Schechter’s 2006 film In Debt We Trust predicted a huge financial crisis was coming, he was laughed at. It turned out he was right.

His latest film, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time shows how the crisis was created by Wall Street bankers breaking the law to manipulate the markets — and suggests a bigger crisis is on the way.

Green Left Weekly is organising screenings of Plunder around the country. It is screening in Sydney on October 23, at 6.30pm in the Resistance Centre, 23 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale. Watch the calendar on page 23 for details of other screenings.

GLW’s Mat Ward spoke to Schechter.

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Your new film, Plunder, calls the global financial crisis the biggest white-collar crime in history. How interested are people in this story?

Most countries, including Australia, have felt some pain in this era of globalisation and international financial markets. The movie theatres are filling up with white-collar crime stories. There is even a TV series called White Collar.

I don’t think that would be the case if the market researchers didn’t detect lots of interest. Crime as a genre is far more popular than business news, so this angle connects with the anger of people who feel they have been robbed of their jobs, homes and hope.

The stories in the film about [convicted Ponzi scheme fraudster Bernie] Madoff and similar tales of greed and theft touched a nerve. The left — green and otherwise — prefer to have theoretical debates about the complexities of derivatives and credit default swaps.

That’s what loses the audience and leads to the “MEGO” effect — “My Eyes Glaze Over”. Let’s reframe these issues not just in terms of right and left, but right and wrong.

Crime introduces the moral dimension, and sparks anger and disgust. We need a crime narrative to connect with ordinary people who see it that way.

There is a wonderful scene in Plunder in which a TV news reporter tries to get people protesting on Wall Street to talk to her about losing their homes and they refuse. You used to work for CNN and ABC, yet — like the protesters — you hold the mainstream media partly responsible for the financial crisis. What message should alternative media be spreading?

The “lamestream” media were complicit, as I argue in my film and companion book The Crime Of Our Time. They didn’t warn us, didn’t investigate and, in fact, are owned by financial firms.

Between 2002 and 2007, dodgy lenders, credit card companies and financial institutions pumped US$3 billion in advertising into big media in the US, pumping up the bubble.

Alternative media — at least in the US — seems to prefer [criticising] Barack Obama and Fox News rather than mounting their own investigations, interesting their readers in understanding what happened and discussing strategies for fighting back.

Many commentators have compared the predicted demise of the US to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Could it, in fact, be more dramatic than that?

It could be. Powerful economic interests in this age of financialisation can collapse. Only 15 out of 15,000 professional economists here even predicted the crisis.

At the same time, the people in power can’t always manage the contradictions and cleavages they create. You can’t predict what will happen next.

The geniuses in power are not such geniuses. Look at what’s happening in Afghanistan — a big outbreak of a bank robbing itself, similar to what BCCI [the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was closed in 1991 for committing widespread fraud] did years ago.

How do you see the world in five or 10 years from now?

It’s beyond my ability to see. I am a reporter, not a prophet. But it doesn't look good, does it?

The people in power don’t have the political will to crack down on the predatory elite. Food prices are up in poor countries. Folks in Mozambique are rioting and that will just be the beginning.

When I made In Debt We Trust and warned of a meltdown, I was called an alarmist. I went from being thought of as a zero to praised as a hero. I was neither!

What’s shocking is how few saw what was just around the corner. I am not so smart — I just try to pay attention.

In what ways should people be preparing to rebuild society?

In every way and every day. We need alternatives to the madness.

What are your thoughts on the Australian economy?

It seemed to be working and expensive when I was in Sydney a few years back. But I know there have been real estate meltdowns, Ponzi schemes, sub-crime mortgages and sleazy greedheads profiting off the misery of working people.

I don’t want to claim more knowledge than I have, but Australia has not escaped the global financial crisis. Your big banks are squeezing the public the same way ours are.

Do you have anything to add?

Check out www.PlunderTheCrimeofOurTime.com . The film is on iTunes, DVD and available from us. Help us get the word out and organise screenings on campuses and communities. I need help in getting the word out and the film seen.