The City’s Secrets

January 15, 2013

By Sally Ashley-Cound

There was great interest in the screening of the film Secret City and the Q&A with Michael Chanan – professor of film and video at the University of Roehampton and The New Statesman’s first video blogger – which followed on Monday 14th January at the Frontline Club.

Chanan’s film, along with fellow filmmaker and senior lecturer in journalism at the University of West England Lee Salter, delves into the history and power that is hidden behind the traditions and ceremony of the Lord Mayor and the City of London Corporation, the organisation which governs the City of London; predating the UK parliament and allowing businesses to vote in local elections.

The evening’s chair, Joris Luyendijk, writer for the Guardian’s Banking Blog, started the off the discussion after the film:

I think I had a bit of a Jimmy Saville moment, when you see something quite shocking and you realise it’s been hiding in plain sight for all this time.

To which Chanan replied:

You Google for images . . . of the floor of the London Stock exchange and I couldn’t find any. There are any number of the floor of New York, the floor of Hong Kong and none of London’s. Why not? Eventually working backwards I found this stuff [archive footage from 1939 and 1951] it’s not on Google, you have to go to a real old fashioned archive. And then looking at it I thought “Wait a minute, in 1951 they’re not yet quite so ashamed of making these claims, about the City being a state within a state, about the . . . Lord Mayor being monarch of everything he sees except his own monarch. . . . Those kinds of phrases.” So since then they’ve become a lot more careful about their public image.

Chanan was very clear that he wanted the film to be as independent and freely distributed as possible and on being asked about whether he had sought help from the BBC he said:

We did think of trying to get them to commission the film but gave up very quickly. We went through the arguments with our producer . . . maybe they would do it if you could bring some revelations. The whole problem with big revelations is that you can’t find that; you can’t get that; they’re completely closed. So we gave up that idea.

Rev. William Taylor, a City of London Councillor for nearly seven years and who featured in the film, was called upon in the audience to give his point of view:

What you have in the City Corporation is that it holds together a consensus that we have found it very hard to think about in this county about the importance of the financial services to our economy. We think . . . that the financial services is the goose that’s laying the golden egg . . . they’re so important to us. And we’re just realising that in fact the goose is fouling its nest and the eggs that it’s laying are toxic and they’re not doing us any good and we need to put it out of it’s misery. . . . What we need is a way of opening that up to clinical judgment and I think the film has really done that.

The discussion then turned to the Corporation’s role with respect to European law to which Chanan said:

The explanations to why we’re not in the Euro . . . are that these things are not a matter of British government policy because British government policy in areas like that, whichever party is in power, are effectively determined by the City. And the City did not want to be in the Euro. There are a couple of reasons for that at least. One is . . . that would open the City to the potential of European directives but the other is that it refuses to accept any other European financial centre as its competitor as it would have to.

One of the final statements came from an audience member who works in the City:

Most people in the City are not corrupt but there are incentives within the system which cause all the problems that we have. . . . When you’re in the City you understand the parameters within which you’re working and you never question that and therefore it’s only when you step outside and actually look . . . that you begin to question the whole rationale. And it’s only when you question the whole rationale that you seen this is not about bad people or corruption it’s about a system which is clearly not fit for what we need, it dwarfs everything else. . . . It is a system that is designed in such a way that it has certain effects and that’s what we need to attack. It’s not the people, it’s the systemic flaws.

Secret City is being screened all over the UK within the next few months, find out where on secretcity-thefilm.com

Watch the trailer for Secret City below