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The unheard story of Ida Tarbell. Our video about the journalist who tamed the big businesses of her time

August 15, 2017   2 mins

Liam Halligan in New York, filming for UnHerd

At the end of last month our weekly economics columnist Liam Halligan introduced one of his heroes – Ida Tarbell – to UnHerd readers. I’m afraid I’d never heard of this crusading American journalist until Liam corrected my lack of knowledge. He couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for the role she played in fighting big businesses like Standard Oil who, by the end of the 19th century, possessed huge market power, Octopus-like influence throughout federal and state government… and had frequently won both by unfair means.

For Liam, this daughter of small town Pennsylvania provides a model for business journalists to this day – although not, perhaps, her spinsterdom. She chose not to marry and to, instead, dedicate her life to campaigning journalism and research. Tarbell’s success, argues Liam, was founded on a respect for what business and enterprise contributes but that general respect has to be accompanied with an intolerance of the tendency of corporates to short-change consumers whenever they can get away it. Adam Smith identified this tendency in his Wealth of Nations, noting that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” And it’s why policies to prevent monopolistic behaviours or market shares most always be a fundamental economic duty of governments.

If you admire Ida Tarbell so much you should do something to address the widespread ignorance of her…

And not that long after I uttered those words and suggested he jet off to the USA to make a short film about (a) her successful campaign against John D Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire and (b) the need for similar journalism in our own times – characterised as they are by the rise of new giant companies (in technology, pharmaceuticals and finance)… Liam was at the airport and on his way.

The twenty minute film we publish today is the fruit of Liam’s visit. He was ably assisted by Tom Besley, the director, and the producer was Sean Glynn. Sean also produces our audio programmes1. My thanks to all three of them and to the interviewees who gave generously of their time. I hope you not only watch the video but also consider sending it to any teachers and other educators you know. The David-Vs-Goliath quality to the story – the example of a woman defying her male-dominated times – and the continued need to fight concentrations of economic power make it relevant in multiple ways to young, impressionable minds…

…it also reminds me (what a coincidence!) of the article we published yesterday about the EU’s current Competition Commissioner. Margrethe Vestager – profiled by Harriet Maltby as “the eurocrat who shows the middle finger to big business” – has a lot of Tarbell in her.

  1. The first was an examination of the news industry’s short-termism and included interviews with Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Dimbleby, Craig Oliver, Lionel Shriver and Justin Webb.

Tim Montgomerie was most recently a columnist and comment editor for The Times of London. Before that journalistic turn he was steeped in centre right politics, founding the Conservative Christian Fellowship, then the Centre for Social Justice and, just over ten years ago, ConservativeHome.com.


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