The currency of journalism is impartiality. Ideally, it is practiced without fear or favour. When conducted at the behest of an a priori agenda, it is impotent (hardcore journalists are forever sneering at those who practice “advocacy”).
As a practical matter the difference is obvious. State owned and operated media in Russia don’t afford the same species of product as the BBC. An authoritarian oligarchy rigs its “journalism” to filter out inconvenient facts. The BBC enjoys credibility precisely because the broadcaster and its news service engineers a relationship at arm’s length from the state.
In this sense, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Matthew Hart’s approach in reporting the global gold rush is, in spirit, nearer Moscow than London.
Formally Hart – himself a former producer at CBC news and an esteemed print journalist – is a fluent stylist and an adventurous reporter. In South Africa, he plummets into the earth more than a mile and a half (“My stomach sailed into my ribs. My ears blocked. Air whistled through the wire mesh”) aiming to investigate what it takes to dig the stuff out.
He has a practised eye and ear for the telling detail: “As the cage hurtled down the shaft, the suspended weight increased. The cage by itself weighed twenty thousand pounds…Then there was the weight of the steel rope that held the cage. The rope was two-and-a-half inches thick and weighed twelve pounds a foot. That meant that for every thousand feet we dropped, the rope added six tons to the weight it had to hold – an extra ton every 3.6 seconds. I pictured the steel rope unspooling in a blur, packing steel onto our plummeting car.”
Hart’s reporting proceeds at a similar pace throughout. He ping-pongs around the planet from the trading rooms of London to dark and dank mines in the Congo to China and through time from South America’s fabulous pre-Columbian treasure troves to the 19th-century western American rush for the yellow metal “from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas.”
As to the characters our narrator encounters, they tend – whether dressed in Savile Row suits or denim coveralls – to the hard-bitten, rough and ready variety. They move “with an athletic step,” have “flat green eyes” and are occasionally “grizzled.” One mining magnate has “the build and temperament of a cape Buffalo” and “a weakness for such diversions as hurling himself out of airplanes for a thirty-second free fall; shooting grade-V rapids on the Zambezi river, and bungee jumping at Victoria Falls where you drop ninety-five feet before you reach the end of the cord.” (Note that it’s not before “he” reaches the end of the chord but before “you” – dear reader and fellow adventurer – reach the end of the cord).
In short, Hart seeks to identify the mining of gold with action, adventure and of course the “romance” of money. “In the first three months of 2011,” Hart reports, “the value of gold traded was $15,200,000,000,000… twice as much gold as has had been mined in all history.” Those parading zeros (besides the deep irrationality they represent) are, at the root of it, the hard-core T&A of financial eroticism.
Missing in all this is any sort of balancing context for the great adventure. Nowhere beyond the cursory is there made mention of the environmental and human-rights degradation that goes hand-in-glove with the exponential increase in the mining of gold as its price (recent dips notwithstanding) rockets ever upward.
Hart, for instance, spends an entire chapter examining the life and legacy of Peter Munk, founder and outgoing chairman of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest producer, without once mentioning, even in passing, the ongoing allegations of murder, rape and environmental mayhem that have dogged that company for over a decade.
None of this is to gainsay the quality of Hart’s effort on its own terms. He’s a terrific writer and reporter. He is not in this instance, however, a journalist. He is far too captive of his subject, and the best that can be said of this book is that it is a superb example of public relations. Or, if you will, fool’s gold.
Douglas Bell, formerly an editor at Canadian Business, lives in Princeton, N.J.