Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Review: The Big Fella, Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin (2009)

I suppose that a book about a company as famous as mining giant BHP Billiton should focus on the machinations of senior executives as they negotiate such pitfalls as poor investments, corporate takeovers and mergers and acquisitions. There is a certain thrill to be experienced in reading about their decisions about whether to go ahead with one thing or another as their company grows from nothing with German prospector Charles Rasp clomping around the far-west of New South Wales with his eyes fixed firmly on the ground, to a $30 billion behemoth with stock exchange listings in Sydney and London and employing tens of thousands of people. Hence the subtitle: 'The Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton'.

And it certainly is interesting to learn that Billiton, which is the partner firm most Australians would be less familiar with, was a South African company that had its roots in tin mining on the island of Belitung in what is now Indonesia. There's enough material in the book to satisfy the curiosity of anyone interested in such arcana. It was certainly enough for me.

But the book suffers from two faults: an excess of facts and the lack of a driving narrative. Journalist-reviewers might applaud the fact that we often get an inside line on information about goings-on behind usually closed doors, but I felt that the carefully-modulated utterances of recent executives who are talking about colleagues still-living suffer from the same credibility problem as soundbites made by politicians on the campaign trail. It's all a bit too surreal and clubby. You frequently yearn for more substance.

There are some interesting leads that the authors unfortunately refused to follow up, such as the nepotistic proximity of BHP to the Liberal government of Robert Menzies. A few facts are revealed with some fanfare - "you heard it here first" - but the leads go cold quickly. And while the authors declare at the outset that there was no editorial control by either company during the writing of the book, the fact that such potentially-embarrassing leads are left alone leaves you wondering about the strength of the authors' backbones.

Compared with the volume of material that is disclosed when dealing with business events, the amount of material dedicated to unfavourable leads like this is deeply disappointing. Other areas which the authors leave largely alone are the Ok Tedi mine disaster (where millions of tonnes of toxic tailings were discharged directly into the Fly River in Papua New Guinea, severaly damaging the ecosystem), the AWB scandal (where BHP facilitated the supply of a shipment of wheat from Australia to Iraq during the period when a UN trade embargo applied to dealings with the pariah nation) and, most damaging perhaps, BHP's role in managing the Howard government's response to the challenges of climate change.

Both authors are former journalists. They are not used to managing long narratives, but rather are familiar with short ones. For this reason a lot of the book feels like an extended feature article. One major problem with this method is that the reader is constantly surprised by names that had been introduced earlier in the piece but whose relevance the reader has subsequently forgotten. In a 1000-word feature this is easy to counter: you just scroll back up the story until you find the first reference to the peron. In a book running to 500 pages you just shrug and concede defeat and plow on, remaining ignorant of which Bob or David is being talked about at that particular point. This is a failing of method and it is routine in this book.

But beyond this weakness there is an overriding lack of narrative theme. The journalists have decided to pack the book with every available fact and just forge ahead using time as the main ordering principle. It doesn't work. The book is fragmented and often seems repetitive because the strong editorial hand is missing from it. It could have been a really gripping read if the authors had possessed more long-form experience. Unfortunately, they don't and so the reader is faced with trawling through pages and pages of unimportant detail in search of the theme that will make everything make sense. It's just not there.

Regardless, it's a book that any Australian with curiosity about the social, environmental and economic performance of a major mining company can profitably read. It's a page-turner at times. It's just that sometimes it seems that the authors are more interested in being seen to be experienced insiders than they are in showing the truth about an industry that will cintinue to be controversial well into the industrial future that awaits us all.

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