The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire is Michael Oswald’s newest revelatory feature documentary – one which is as important to Britain as Ava Du Vernay’s 13th (2016) is to Americans. Both place national history into a disturbing modern context! It parallels Du Vernay’s deduction that in giving up overt slavery, American elites subverted the 13th Constitution of the United States to utilise the judicial system to funnel unpaid prison inmate labour into the business sector, thereby subsidising rising production costs and preserve the lost profits. It also restricted the power of white society’s ‘unwanted elements’ through incarceration.
Spider’s Web exposes similar practices up to a point. It is narrated by actor Andrew Piper and features contributions from leading experts, academics, former insiders (including one financial investigator who went undercover for 10 years!) and campaigners for social justice, to tell our story. Oswald uses stylized b-roll, archive and contemporaneous footage to illustrate their points as they discuss how the irretrievable decline of the British Empire (at its height one of the largest in history) led to an increasing loss of income for the City of London. The City, responsible for the UK’s financial services industry and representing its own interests, was incited to compensate itself by creating a whole new monetary system – the Eurodollar; a new market for a new investment system – the London Euromarket; and a safe, regulation-free zone in which to apply it – so-called ‘secrecy jurisdictions’, otherwise known as tax havens! These jurisdictions have grown over the years to represent trillions of dollars of which, on paper, Britain’s elites benefit from almost half!
As the pieces come together, the film show how this growth has driven the wider financialisation of this country, which has directly caused its de-industrialisation and the decimation of prospects, skill and working communities around the nation. Such disadvantages serve to keep said communities passive, restrict their power and, blind to its own decline, believing that this is the way it has always been.
The revulsion of the contributors is quite plain, and very infectious. Even with the less accessible intricacies of how on earth such willful exploitation of the vast majority of the global population could have happened, and is still happening, the distaste for what Oswald uncovered during his 4 months of research and writing, combined with decades devoted by some of the contributors in trying to bring these appalling practices to light, you the viewer cannot help but be outraged at the facts… not least because the major losers in this financial game are the countries from which we of the African Diaspora originate, along with virtually every other developing continent.
Yes, the other losers are the Caribbean nations such as the Cayman Islands which host these jurisdictions, screened far beyond Switzerland’s financial secrecy, and are dependent on the expenditure (probably disguised as ‘tourist income’) of the investors. Add to that, resource-rich African nations whose collective billion dollar global debt in 2008 was a around one fifth of the almost trillion dollar fiscal flow off shore between 1970-2008, making Africa actually in net credit to the global economy! Collectively, developing nations are still losing around $1bn a year and their economies remain weak, because they must borrow from the West at high interest rates, which contributes to the root of the poverty of our ancestors and, consequently, us and our children.
In these times of Brexit and with an impending general election, it is a monumental shame that this film won’t be released until later this year, or early next year. Because, despite the shocking greed and self-interest of the instigators and perpetrators, there are even more startling facts which EVERYONE must understand and begin taking steps to correct:
- The Bank of England, as the nation’s bank and the British banking regulator, was (and remains) fully aware of this activity, and this film explains why nothing is done about it.
- The benefactors are both Western elites and their counterparts from developing nations. British politicians are implicated, compromising us all even further. Remember then-Prime Minister David Cameron and the off-shore assets scandal…? Watch this space.
- The City of London, is actually the City of London Corporation – a London district and private concern, with its own law courts and its own police force, separate from the Metropolitan Police, all because of a failing by William The Conqueror.
- The Lord Mayor of London heads the Corporation! So, participating in The Lord Mayor’s Show and Parade every year, celebrates the heinous economic abuses it perpetrates.
So, the situation is a shameful existential scandal, making the message of the film incredibly important. The talking heads are knowledgeable and passionate. But, acknowledging the worthy achievement of self-funding the £4000 budget, I can’t help but think that writer-director Oswald, co-producer John Christensen and executive producer Jerome Roberts missed a trick here.
If the target audience is people like themselves, versed in economic and tax law and practices – brilliant! No problem!
If, however, it is the people who can really make a difference – the wronged masses who still have the energy and the power to change the game, they have unfortunately, fallen short of the mark, in my opinion. The initial comparison to Du Vernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th wasn’t random, and you can remind yourself how she made it so engaging from beginning to end by reading the TBB review here, or watching it again on Netflix.
The delivery here was offered up by a solid Shakespearean actor and lacks imagination or any hook to engage beyond the scandal itself! Oswald could have utilised the dramatic and wholly relevant words from any number of religious texts, from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, from Shakespeare, Dickens, or Linton Kwesi Johnson, or from any number of other recognisable texts sure to have a section on financial and economic crime and greed. He could even have commissioned original prose to make the subject appeal to anyone but the white, further-educated, monied males who got us into this mess in the first place!
Perhaps more importantly, he could have sought out the contribution of economists and experts from the continents and countries who are still suffering the damage done. As it is, the understated, almost dry, nature of the presentation feels like preaching to the choir – a choir made up of the very people the film is trying to expose. It’s no wonder that books and documentaries made in a similar vein, some by the people involved here, have never troubled the mainstream, the awards or even government elections. A great shame.
Still, we were able to ask the writer-director Michael Oswald, and producers Simeon Roberts and John Christensen a series of questions, which we felt better answered some of the questions specifically relevant to people like us. The answers are as interesting as the film itself!
Congratulations on crafting a film that is both informative and sensational. Each of you (as producers and writer-director) has produced past work in an attempt to expose these shocking practices and their effects on us all as Brits and as part of the Commonwealth. What made you take the independent documentary approach?
Simeon: The independent documentary approach allows you to have an unfiltered voice. It gives you the creative space to express your ideas in a way that is transparent and not necessarily influenced by commercial marketing interests that are normally considered for more mainstream projects. I am interested in working on projects that have the potential to impact on our everyday lives.
Michael: Independent documentary wasn’t a choice that I made per se… The Spider’s Web, just like the previous documentaries, are a special kind of independent documentary. Because they do not receive any funding from anyone, they have no budget and they are made largely with the help of volunteers that give their time and expertise for no reward, it is thanks to all the individuals involved that these documentaries are possible. So this is not just independent documentary filmmaking, it is something more unique. For me, making a documentary is around 18 months of full-time work, promotion comes on top of that. There is no monetary reward and almost no recognition, but there is the satisfaction of having created something unique, having told a story that has not been told and, in the process, raising awareness and hopefully having some kind of impact.
Who were you hoping to reach – your target audience?
Simeon: My main motivation for working on this film, despite it being an interesting subject, is that I have a belief that a society that is informed is a better society overall. We are living in a period where establishments are being held to account more and more and I believe that is partly due to increased awareness brought about by various mediums such as documentary films.
The film contains many interesting facts that I think people will find Interesting such as the fact that African countries have moved five times the amount of their national debts in to offshore havens, yet we will still have a perception that Africa is poor. My hope is that after watching The Spider’s Web, facts likes these will encourage a dialogue where we as individuals ask questions about how society functions and how it can seek to serve people more equally.
As well as reaching our core audience; those who are actively interested or have been exposed to the subject matter, we also want to extend that reach to individuals who have not come across the topic before. We will be hosting local screenings where the aim is to encounter new audiences.
To what end?
Michael: I hope the documentary contributes to an understanding of how offshore [havens] came about, how it works and the global impact it has. I think it is important to open a debate about Britain’s role in the offshore system, Britain and its dependent territories are the biggest global players and Britain continuously stands in the way of progress towards a fair and transparent global system. I hope the film will contribute to an impetus for change and I hope audiences enjoy the film.
I used the word Commonwealth, but you starkly illustrate that the wealth from those mainly developing nations is still being funnelled into some pretty exclusive pockets. Do you have any further comment on any current reforms that any politician or political party, or even the Bank of England are pursuing to try to bring these activities under control? If so, are they also being conducted in the shadows/on the side lines to minimise any chance of a public backlash or reckoning?
John: There are attempts at introducing reform here in the UK. An example is the Criminal Finance Bill. The Bill, which [the] Tax Justice Network (TJN) worked hard to sponsor, aimed to require companies registered in Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to create registries of the ultimate beneficial ownership of companies. The Bill would have introduced Unexplained Wealth Orders in the UK, so that wealth whose origin could not be explained could be treated as potential stolen property. In addition the Bill would have made it a criminal offence for an enabler (lawyer, tax adviser or banker) to not report a situation where the client might be engaged in tax evasion. However, a crucial amendment to the Bill was dropped in the final sweep up period. The amendment related to public disclosure of ultimate beneficial ownership of companies registered in Britain’s overseas territories and crown dependencies. Sadly, the government allowed considerable lobbying by the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies ahead of the final vote and could not secure a majority in favour of including the amendment… [and] the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, did not put up a fight to support the amendment. TJN plan to resurrect the amendment in the autumn and have already discussed this with the shadow chancellor.
Do you think that there is any way for those governments to recoup these 6 decades of loss – even if it is just to rebalance the books of so-called 3rd world debt vs appropriated off-shore wealth (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa’s collective debt that you mention ~$177bn debt vs $944bn wealth lost since the 1970s) going forward?
Michael: In the documentary, we refer to the wealth lost by African Nations from the 1970s onwards, this is wealth that could have been invested in Africa and taxed in Africa, instead it was shifted offshore by various nefarious means. This wealth is still owned by Africans it is just not in Africa anymore, so it cannot benefit Africa and by moving offshore it has helped to undermine the value of African currencies. A significant amount of this wealth and the decades of proceeds thereof could be taxed by African Nations and this may well rebalance the books, as would taxing corporations’ activities in Africa.
Simeon: I agree, I think the loss of tax revenue and the undervaluing of currencies are important issues that need to be addressed if African countries are going to stand a chance of rebalancing the books. I think corporations should be encouraged to be more transparent to ensure that they are behaving ethically, especially in regions such as Africa and South America.
Quite aside from the legacy of slavery, you present pretty damning evidence that we, as the African and Caribbean Diaspora (as well as South American and Asian) were pretty much born into the poverty imposed upon our ancestors, and still being imposed on our ancestral countrymen. Can you envisage any kind of justice or reparation? If not what is it that you hope to achieve with Spider’s Web both for the side-lined blue collar British and the people of the robbed commonwealth?
Michael: The greatest justice would be to implement a transparent and fair global framework, so that countries can make decisions that are in the interests of their citizens. In terms of British blue collar workers we have made the case in the documentary that the power of the financial sector in Britain has lowered the standard of living for the majority of people in Britain, John Christensen calls this phenomenon the Finance Curse. In Britain, the financial sector’s interests are seen as being above the interests of the rest of the country. As a result, the financial sector is able to impose its ideology in ways which are unnecessary and [are], in fact, damaging to the country’s long term interests.
Simeon: We want people to be aware of the corruption that is taking place. I believe there are many individuals who feel the symptoms from this kind of corruption but cannot articulate it. The Spider’s Web is that articulation. In order for there to be more transparency and better regulation, we have to collectively require it of our government and other institutions; this requires education, dialogue and then action.
I was surprised that someone like Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t made more of it/didn’t make more of it in the general election campaign to stress to the voting public how the UK’s multi-ethnic population have been affected. He brushed upon fighting for financial reform, but do you think he knows what’s been going on and is being canny to not scare big business/investors? Is he totally out of the loop? Shouldn’t he be doing more?
John: The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is well informed about the role of finance in Britain and how the offshore system works. Britain’s overseas jurisdictions voted overwhelmingly for the conservatives in the general election because they know that a Labour government under the current leadership would very likely signify the end for them. The Labour Manifesto sees the reform of the City of London and banking as one of the fundamental tasks for a Labour government. One of the aims is to move the financial sector away from speculative banking to utility-based banking.
What can you see a weakened conservative government doing to bring about financial reform? What impact will Brexit have on the Euromarket?
John: There is no indication that the current Conservative government plan to bring about financial reform. They may well do the opposite. There have been suggestions that Britain will try to extend its tax evasion and secrecy activities as a result of Brexit. Brexit was an unexpected event for the City of London, and has caused a certain dilemma, because a large portion of the City of London’s activities require it to be based in the single market. If a country is outside of the single market its regulations need to be equivalent to those of the single market in order to have access to that market. The EU does not believe that UK regulation is sufficiently strong enough, therefore London-based firms will likely not retain access to the single market.
Signals that have come out of the EU suggest that the EU would not be comfortable to have such an important market outside of the single market. Up to 70, 000 jobs in the City could be affected if the Clearing House activities that are currently in London were shifted to Berlin or Paris, etc.
What can we expect from you next as a production team or as individuals?
Simeon: I’m currently working on a couple of small scale projects centred [on] politics and finance. They are in the early stages but they are focused on educating and engaging a young British audience [with] politics through short documentary films.
Michael: I plan to collaborate with John Christensen on a documentary about the Finance Curse, I’m not sure how much I can say about that project at this stage. I’m also researching a series of documentaries about the Intelligence Services. One of the topics I will explore is snitching. There exists a whole archive of information on this topic which people in the UK are relatively unaware of. The documentary will be looking at how snitching works, why people snitch, the relationship between the handler, the snitch and the target, etc. It will also explore how snitching affects a society, and ask at what point and to what extent snitching can undermine a society. Snitching is a big thing in the UK, and although it may not be possible to definitively expose the extent of snitching and associated complex networks of collaborators, we can look at what we know from historical regimes and the information that has come to light in order to build a picture. I’m excited about this topic. I’ve completed the research, I don’t expect the documentary to get any funding, I don’t expect that the documentary’s existence will be acknowledged, but I guarantee it will be a very eye-opening and entertaining film for everyone who is curious about the world we live in and how it works.
Spider’s Web is in the process of film festival submissions and negotiations for exhibition with independent exhibitors, alongside a VOD release. It has already been selected in the Best Self-Funded Film category of the 2017 XV Cine Pobre Film Festival in Mexico, and the producers should certainly consider September 2017’s BUFF and Raindance Film Festivals to really reach people that might make a difference. They then embark a scheduled tour of university film societies in the autumn.
The first public screening with a post-screening Q&A, will occur on September 15th, 2017 at Newspeak House, Shoreditch, London E2 7DG, UK, 7:30 pm. Tickets now available at £10.
We wish them every success!