/ 12 June 2021

Screen Grab: Deeply shallow

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The documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ is a textbook display of disingenuous interviewing. (Wikipedia)

Being unpleasant without being a complete arsehole is a priceless life skill — and nowhere more so than in the trenches of journalism. As a young newspaper reporter, I was usually too timid to piss off my interviewees — or too empathetic, if you want to give me a charitable interpretation. (Nowadays, in my day job as a political cartoonist, I’m happy to enrage lots of people from the sanctuary of my studio.)

The art of hard but clean television interviewing is dominated by the British, whose national reputation for excessive politeness is wholly unearned. Interviewers like Mehdi Hasan, Stephen Sackur and Emily Maitlis are terrifying inquisitors of lies, big and small. They play the ball, but if the man gets in the way of the ball, then the man must get hurt.

They don’t hector or shout or interrupt gratuitously; their aggression is bolted to the facts. Another Brit, the documentarian Louis Theroux, takes a far gentler approach, but he shares with his nastier compatriots a capacity to let awkwardness happen. His default effect of restrained astonishment allows absurdities and darknesses to bubble to the surface. For example, it’s hard to keep quiet immediately after a subject has said something huge, as Theroux often does, in the knowledge that she could be about to say something even bigger if not interrupted.

Compared to these apex predators of the actuality ocean, Ali Tabrizi comes across as an unusually vicious sardine. Tabrizi is the maker of Seaspiracy, a flashy new Netflix documentary about the environmental damage caused by the world’s fisheries. Tabrizi is British and he is willing to be unpleasant. But that’s not enough of a skills set. He is also 27 — and his youth shows in the juvenile shortcuts in his arguments, and in the cheap snarkiness of his interviewing and editing techniques. 

His interviewees are mostly scientists or executives at marine conservation nongovernmental organisations, which he believes are captured by the fishing corporations and do little or nothing to protect sea life.

All too often, we are given only a fragment of an interview: the part in which Tabrizi demands to know why the subject’s particular NGO is not calling for the world to eat less fish — or no fish at all. He wants a gotcha moment from the outset and every time he thinks he has one. Invariably, the interviewees are simply a bit gobsmacked by the question – not because they are shills of industrial fishing but because eating fish keeps billions of struggling humans alive. To ask them all to stop is not just futile, it’s stupid.

At times, the scene ends when the interviewee is rattled by the sanctimoniousness of Tabrizi’s challenge, but visibly about to offer a considered counter-argument. In one infuriating edit, the scientist is inhaling to say something more when the cut comes. Such cynical editing is not a creative prerogative, it’s a breach of journalistic ethics.

Don’t get me wrong, Seaspiracy offers some hard realities about the backstory of a plate of fish. But it also gets key facts wrong. Tabrizi luridly asserts that the seas will be empty by 2048 if current trends continue, an old claim from 2006 that has been repudiated even by the scientist who made it. As several marine biologists have said, fish stocks are growing in many parts of the ocean and sustainable fisheries are far from a myth.

 The film points out big problems with bycatch, labour standards and the lack of marine protected areas, but they are fixable problems. As ever, real-world progress happens through the laborious struggle of difficult tradeoffs and awkward alliances. It doesn’t happen on Netflix. 

And Seaspiracy fails to acknowledge the fact that fish feeds billions of people in the Global South who have no other reliable protein source, and employs hundreds of millions of workers. Tabrizi assumes he is addressing only the privileged consumer; he doesn’t bother to define the audience he is asking to eat differently. To explicitly make such a distinction between the environmental obligations of the rich and the poor would not invalidate his argument. But he doesn’t think hard enough to get that far.

In short, this is undergrad stuff all dressed up in a postgrad budget. Tabrizi’s argument offers the seductive appeal of simplicity and judgy virtue, but little else. When you think you know it all before the interview has even started, then you definitely don’t.