Interview: Al Gore

The former US vice-president on the power of documentary

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How do you suggest to a man who once (almost) ruled the world that his greatest achievement was a documentary film?

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Bluntly is probably best. So I put it to Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States and, arguably, president as well but for hanging chad, that his documentary An Inconvenient Truth was his finest moment. He pretty well agreed: “No matter where I travel in the world I have people come and tell me personal stories about the impact that the movie had on them.”

Folks do not say this about his vice-presidency. But you get the impression that Al Gore does not care. Al Gore loves documentaries. An Inconvenient Truth – his broadside on climate change – is one of the biggest-grossing documentaries in American history; more importantly, it has been seen and argued over around the world. It has spawned activism and counter-activism. It has made a difference.

So Al Gore is definitely a fan of the documentary genre and wants you to be as well. He spends much of his time now running a cable TV network – Current TV – and they have come up with a list of the 50 best.

Most (all right, I am excluding March of the Penguins from this charge) are what you might call polemics. Not necessarily wrong-headed and unfair and not necessarily left-wing, but all with a point of view and the purpose of making you agree. I put it to Mr Gore that this is the business he is in – does he really believe in impartiality?

“Maybe there are a few on this list that are fairly described as polemical, but I think that there is a difference between having a point of view and creating a polemic argument.”

So does he accept points of view from the other side? How about Fox News – Rupert Murdoch’s feisty, right-wing cable news channel? Fox cannot stand Gore and the feeling is mutual.

“I think that Fox News has played a largely harmful role, where the quality of public discourse is concerned,” is his somewhat ponderous formulation of his dislike. But we get the picture. And he gives an example: 85 per cent of the public who do not watch Fox News believe the science behind climate change; only 50 per cent of those who watch Fox accept the scientists’ views.

Gore believes this is “representative of the harmful effect that can come from crossing the line into a political agenda as the formation of presentations to a mass audience”. It could also mean that climate sceptics merely turn to Fox to reinforce views they already hold, but Gore is plainly of the opinion that Fox damages what he believes is good sense.

So is he pleased to witness Rupert Murdoch in trouble? “Well, I don’t want to make any comments about him,” ventures the cautious documentary-maker. But what about the power of his empire, the power of Fox News? “When editors and reporters are instructed by corporate executives to ignore a certain fact and to conform their presentation to an ideological agenda, I think that inevitably has some harmful impact on the quality of public discourse.”

So might the Murdoch difficulties be a turning point? “We shall see… I think that any development that makes people more aware of when they are being
intentionally deceived is good for democracy – but there are many ways that this could play out and many changes in the philosophy and management of these properties could also be one of the outcomes.”

Changes in the philosophy and management. Sounds as if the ex-vice-president is hoping the Murdoch travails on this side of the Atlantic will cause changes – serious changes – in America, too. A change of ownership at Fox News would be a revolutionary move in modern US politics, a real game-changer.

For this to happen there would need, it seems to me, to be serious evidence of American wrong-doing by News Corporation executives and I am not at all sure that such evidence is going to exist. Al Gore will say nothing about Mr Murdoch personally but he is plainly hoping for the British tabloids to poison Fox’s well.

Does Fox News do a different job to Al Gore’s channel Current TV? Current TV has just hired Keith Olbermann, one of the leading lights of the American left, to be its chief news person. Fair and balanced? Not really. But Current TV reaches far fewer people than Fox and Al Gore plainly feels that the balance is wrong. He wants his left-wing documentary-makers to get an audience with the American people. He does not put it like that because he seriously believes that his people are on the decent side of this journalistic battle, rather sweetly asking us to believe that they take great care “not to include any material that has not been adequately validated according to the rule of reason and expert communities”.

This will cut no ice in Kansas. But there is a wider battle where Mr Gore can expect, with more justification, to end up on the winning side. It is the battle for the documentary genre. He exhorts TV companies to stick to the documentary as an art form: “When there is a commitment to the highest quality journalism, there is an audience. And where there is an audience there is a business model. And when there’s a business model there are revenues to continue making more… high-quality, long-form, documentary-style features.”

Al Gore is charming and earnest. I imagine his TV station is as well. Will it outlast Fox? He is far too polite to suggest it, but the News of the World scandal has given the former vice-president a new spring in his step.

Justin Webb is a presenter on Radio 4’s Today and is the BBC’s former North America editor

50 Documentaries to See before You Die starts at 10pm on Tuesday 9 August on Current TV

Al Gore’s top five documentaries

1. March of the Penguins
“An incredibly powerful film that touched me very, very deeply.”

2. Hoop Dreams
“I remember when I first saw Hoop Dreams — I was astonished by the power of the story.”

3. Man on Wire
“The integration of the old video, made during the preparatory stages of Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers, and the new was just incredible.”

4. Gasland
“Last year’s famous documentary ignited an incredible debate in the United States.”

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5. Touching the Void
“An incredibly powerful movie… viewers will be astonished at the quality and the compelling story.”