MoneyWeek TV and book review: 3 November 2023

The latest TV and book reviews from the expert team here at MoneyWeek.

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Each week MoneyWeek takes a look at the TV shows, films and books that are hitting the top of the finance and business charts.

TV show of the week: Big Vape

Big Vape: The Rise And Fall Of Juul

The backlash against “big tech” has been one of the key trends of the past decade. While technology companies were initially hailed as the saviours of humanity, the same politicians and commentators who were previously vying to laud them are now denouncing them. Whether this represents a necessary correction, a moral panic, or simply the recognition that “progress” can be more complicated than it seems, is, of course, up for debate. While firms such as Facebook/Meta have borne the brunt of this, this four-part Netflix documentary about the vaping company Juul Labs shows that this type of fall from grace isn’t limited to social media companies. 

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The first section looks at the firm’s early days as Ploom, a start-up created by Stanford University students who wanted to find a way to help people quit smoking. It then focuses on the development and launch of Juul, a vaping product that appeared to live up to the hype. However, part three goes on to show how Juul’s controversial marketing campaign and its addictiveness led it to be taken up by teenagers, rather than the adult smokers it was supposedly aimed at. Finally, the series concludes by looking at how the vaping epidemic, combined with Juul’s decision to accept investment from Altria, led to it becoming a pariah. 

The documentary is based on the book Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul by Jamie Ducharme, a journalist at Time magazine, and includes interviews with a wide range of sources, giving the viewer a huge amount of behind-the-scenes detail about the company. 

Director R.J Cutler is determined to be fair, bringing in both Juul’s critics and those who still defend the company. For instance, the latter point out that the wave of hospitalisations in the summer of 2019, widely seen as the moment Juul Labs’ reputation collapsed, were almost certainly caused by pirate products. Yet overall, the series takes a critical view of the company, especially its hypocrisy in accepting money from an industry that it promised to eliminate. 

In one scene, advertisements from Juul’s launch campaign are shown side by side with cigarette advertisements from the 1960s and 1970s, highlighting how both targeted young people. If Juul launched idealistic motives, it quickly lost its way by taking the easy option in pursuit of money, and by ignoring repeated warnings from all sides about the attractiveness of its flavoured pods to children. This is an extremely engaging and well-produced mini-series that tells a compelling story about life inside a prominent start-up, while also raising important questions about business ethics and public health policy. The result is well worth watching.

Book of the Week: Backbone of the Nation

Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85 £20
Robert Gildea

In the early 1980s, the UK government was determined to curtail the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) through a programme of pit closures. In response, the NUM called a national strike in 1984, leading to a year-long clash that ultimately spelled the end of trade unions as a major economic and political force. 

In Backbone of the Nation, historian Robert Gildea uses interviews with miners and their families from all parts of the country to tell the story of their doomed battle. We hear that the decision not to call a national ballot meant that a significant number of miners, including those who were sympathetic to the strike, remained at work. This in turn led to attempts by those on strike to use pickets to shut those mines down, further dividing the miners. Police tactics that frequently crossed into outright brutality further inflamed matters. 

Given that the state-run National Coal Board was losing large sums of money, the industry’s demise was inevitable. Many in the NUM leadership, especially its leader Arthur Scargill, failed to grasp that reality. However, this powerfully told account of a defining period in modern British history still evokes a great degree of sympathy for those who saw their work as a way of life and the broader communities caught up in the strike.

Book in the news: The Right to Rule

The Right to Rule: Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Tories, £20.00
Ben Riley-Smith

If you include the coalition years, Britain’s current period of Conservative government has not only outlasted Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s time in office but also the long spell of Conservative dominance between 1951 and 1964. However, this continuity of Tory leadership has been accompanied by unprecedented turmoil at the top, especially since 2016. While the 1979-1997 period involved only two different PMs (Margaret Thatcher and John Major), and the 1951-1964 period involved four (Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home), 2010-2023 has seen five, a rate of churn unmatched for over two centuries. 

This new book by Ben Riley-Smith, The Telegraph’s political editor, takes a behind-the-scenes look at what went on during these various administrations. The Right to Rule doesn’t provide a blow-by-blow account of every event during the entire period. Instead, Riley-Smith focuses on the moments that he considers pivotal. These include the decision to enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and that pact’s demise at the 2015 election; the EU referendum of 2016; the first year of Theresa May’s administration and the 2017 election; the rise of Boris Johnson to the Conservative leadership; his toppling three years later; the brief Liz Truss premiership; and the arrival of Rishi Sunak as the current incumbent in Downing Street. 

The strength of the book is the way in which Riley-Smith has used his access to some of the key players to uncover details that have not previously been disclosed. Combined with his dramatic style of storytelling, this almost feels as if the reader is witnessing events take place – as with Truss’s spectacular implosion when the decision taken by Truss and her aides to turn her tax-cutting instincts “up to 11” saw her become Britain’s shortest-serving leader. However, the lasting impression from this rapid turnover of prime ministers is how the party and Britain have been caught up in years of “policy zigzagging” rather than any coherent strategy.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri