‘Frontline: Black Money’
First the stipulation that “Black Money,” a “Frontline” look at international bribery, is first-class journalism: high-minded, fact-filled and balanced, with some eye-catching visuals.
How could it be anything but stellar given the presence of correspondent Lowell Bergman, one of the top investigative journalists in the nation, if not the world?
Now the problem: It’s dull and seems to be obsessing on an ethical problem that pales when compared with the real-world consequences of the banking industry scandals that have plunged the world into recession.
At the heart of “Black Money” is an $80-billion arms deal between the British-based company BAE Systems and the government of Saudi Arabia that officially began in the 1980s.
As British journalist David Leigh has reported in delicious detail, BAE allegedly slipped a bundle of money to a member of the Saudi royal family. Leigh’s scoops were only the beginning.
But before British prosecutors could close in on the bribers and bribes, the Saudis warned the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair that the probe could imperil the complex relationship between the two countries.
With its British counterpart stymied, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking at BAE, which has 40,000 employees in the U.S. The U.S. has anti-bribery laws dating to the Jimmy Carter era that have made America both the envy and laughingstock of the international business community.
Months ago, in the world before the AIG bonuses, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and credit derivatives, news that the U.S. was looking at BAE as a test of U.S. anti-bribery laws would have seemed interesting, a nice bit of reporting.
Now there’s something unsettling about the prospect of government lawyers taking actions that could throw more Americans out of work. It’s a possibility that “Black Money” seems to skirt -- that the price of being high-minded may be economic ruin for more Americans.
In journalism there is a concept called “being overtaken by events” in which news developments undercut your story before it’s published. “Black Money” has been overtaken by a tidal wave.
The moral of “Black Money” may be one unintended by the documentarians: that America -- and the Department of Justice -- should reform this country’s business practices before attempting to lecture the world.
“We did not invent corruption,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan tells Bergman. “This has happened since Adam and Eve. . . . This is human nature.”
‘Frontline: Black Money’
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)