What I Read: James Marriott of Platform talks to Robert Butler about how he studies the 'FT'
For the background material for our work on oil and climate change I work very closely with PLATFORM colleagues and together we track two companies, BP and Shell. And think very hard about them. We've done that now for ten years.
In a sense, we read four kinds of things between us.
One is the financial press, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, I read the Financial Times more or less from cover to cover. I particularly read the companies report at the back, which is a column about what is happening in various key stocks. There's rarely a period longer than five or ten days when they won't report on BP or Shell, because BP and Shell together constitute between 18 and 19 per cent of the entire FTSE-100.
What I'm looking for, what I want, is colour, texture, character. Literally character. How do the companies think? How do the individuals think? How does a corporation as an institution think and feel? What are its fears? That's texture.
The second thing we read is the trade press. There is loads of trade press, like Upstream or the Petroleum Argos, which deal with very specific bits of the whole industry, about certain sectors of the business, but on a global scale.
The other reading we do is the activist network, the critics and artists. At any one time, there are hundreds of campaigns. Just off the top of my head, in relation to BP, there are people campaigning in Iraq , in Azerbaijan,
Columbia, North Sea. All around the world there is resistance to the way oil and gas development takes place, and the very principle of it.
Everywhere round the world, there are groups saying we don't like this,
and this is why we don't like it, and churning out information about it, mainly
on the internet.
And number four is dialogue with people within the institutions. It's an
expanded notion of reading, really, talking to people in the oil industry or
bits of the associated industries such as the advertising industry, or people who have been in the oil industry
and retired. We're constantly trying to find people on that list, to sit down
and talk with.
What I find intriguing is that, generally speaking, we don't think of these companies as having character. They have a logo on the petrol station and son on, but they're not portrayed as having any texture really. BP is hugely powerful. It's certainly more powerful than many states it works with in the world. You could have an argument that it's more powerful than the British Government.
What interests me is that the government and the state are things that were tangible and characterful, literally full of characters. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and David Cameron and David Cameron ... the drama is constant. It is constantly theatricalised in front of us. Now what do we know about BP? It's largely faceless. And the media don't create theatre out of it.
A while back, during the petrol crisis in 2000, BP put forward a guy called Chris Gibson-Smith (now chairman of the London Stock Exchange) to talk about it on Newsnight. I watched the interview between Jeremy Paxman and him and I thought it was astounding. Paxman didn't know anything about this guy, didn't really know what his job was. He got his job title wrong, didn't know what his remit was in the company, didn't know anything about his personality. Now, if this interview had been with even a fairly low-level politician, he would have known his inside leg measurements.
The modern-day corporation isn't a monolith. It doesn't have everything done in-house. It exists as a web of other institutions which it works with and interrelates to.
It was a demonstration of the fact that in our culture there's no character to these things, and regardless of any critique of should-we/should-we-not have corporations, are they are good or bad etc, these companies are just not represented.
Part of what we do in the Unravelling the Carbon Web project is a cycle of events called Gog and Magog. In these, we do walks in London, with a small audience, every three months to try and unpack the web of institutions that make Shell and BP function.
The walks take place on very significant days, the days the quarterly results are released. There are four very important days in the year for Shell and BP and the AGM isn’t one of them. Every large corporation, such as these two, has quarterly results. They say, “On this day, this is how we've done for the last three months.” And at that point, you can see all these institutions interacting.
So, in a sense, what we're trying to do is unpack, but also theatricalise these most important days. The four quarterly days, when they have to say, “This is how we're doing, this is what we're going to do,” is a moment that they build up to. It's a piece of opera.
I use opera advisedly. Their events are for a very small audience, about 200 people - journalists, analysts - and they are really carefully staged, with music and lights, as they say, “We are the world's seventh largest company, and this is how we're doing, and you're going to carry on investing in us.”
The idea with our events is to take a small audience on a performance walk, trying to get as many people from that web of institutions to be on that event. In the piece we go to a whole set of different locations, in The City mainly, and a bit in the West End.
We use the fables of Gog and Magog as part of the performance script. Mythically, these are the two giants who founded London. And that’s why this piece of work is called Gog and Magog, because BP and Shell are very, very closely related. They’re twins. If you map them, as we've been doing, you could certainly argue that they are one financial block.
It was out of this work, these walks around the institutions in the City of London, that John Jordan and I developed the idea of an audio opera in 2006. This is an opera for one that you can download from www.andwhilelondonburns.com onto your MP3 player and follow through the streets and alleys of The Square Mile.
Read the first review of the audio opera.
For more information on Platform, see their page on the
published in 2007