McMafia author Misha Glenny: I dont want to be moral. I want to show people the way the world works’

The former BBC foreign correspondent is thrilled at the TV adaptation of his book, but says the criminal interests he warned against have infiltrated London and that Brexit raises the risk of further corruption

The BBCs new flagship drama is already said to be 2018s The Night Manager before the first episode has even aired. A chillingly sumptuous portrait of globalised crime, McMafias first episode will be broadcast on New Years Day, before being streamed worldwide on Amazon Prime. The eight-part series stars James Norton as an urbane, privately educated hedge fund manager who is trying to pursue a legitimate career free from his Russian gangster fathers criminal network but becomes compromised when tentacles of violence stretch all the way from Moscow, drawing him in.

The author of the book upon which the show is based will be holding a party every week in honour of each episode. Because, as Misha Glenny says with a bemused smile, this doesnt happen very often, does it? For a nonfiction author of a nonfiction minor cult book to go to a big fictional TV series well its just kind of dreamland.

The reality of organised crime is more like a nightmare. A former BBC foreign correspondent, Glenny wrote the book 10 years ago, tracing the modern networks of international crime back to a lethal intersection of the lawless chaos of the post-Soviet bloc and the sudden mobility of finance after deregulation. In the intervening decade, I ask, has anything changed?

Its got worse. Were not in that kind of wild, speculative period of financial capitalism of the 90s and the 00s, but the 1% continues to detach itself ever further from the rest of the world. If you look at things like the London property market, even with Brexit, this is still one of the favoured destinations for people from dictatorships or classic organised crime figures. That money is still going through London, and its going through London property above all else, but also some of the financial mechanisms. And McMafia culture is visible at the very highest instances of state now, whether youre looking at the Kremlin or the White House.

James
James Norton plays Alex Godman in McMafia. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

The White House? Glenny refers to the alleged laundering of money through Trump properties in New York and Florida. So we have this strange paradox now. People on the one hand dont seem to care; you can be a president and have some association with the McMafia culture, and that seems to be OK. But on the other hand, there is a powerful movement with WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, looking at why our system of global capitalism has become so deeply corrupted. So, in another sense, I think people care more now.

McMafia depicts the penetration of organised crime into the heights of elite London society. We are only oblivious to it, says Glenny, because organised crime is less visible in a city where we are its consumers rather than its producers. The nearer you get to zones of consumption, the further under the radar organised crime goes. Because zones of consumption tend to be affluent countries where its more difficult to bribe the police.

But in the UK, he warns, this is beginning to change. The people who understand corruption best are very poor people and very rich people. The stronger the middle class, the less powerful corruption is. Given that the past decade has witnessed the dramatic decline of the middle class, the implication is alarming. Yes, it is. Look at the issue of austerity, and whats happening to the police forces. When I talk to police now, its not just another public sector bleating about not enough money. They are really, really hurting, and theyre struggling and that will always make them vulnerable to corruption.

The implications of Brexit also worry Glenny. Brexit has thrown everything up in the air and this is an important point about organised crime. Legitimate business leaders say: What we cant deal with is uncertainty. But for the business of organised crime, the opposite is true. Uncertainty, chaos and disruption are a business opportunity.

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A drug-smuggling scene in McMafia. Photograph: Nikola Predovic/BBC/Cuba/Nikola Predovic

The BBCs dramatisation takes fictional protagonist Alex Godman on a journey from a high-rolling London of Kensington mansions and chic hedge-fund offices, to the counterfeit sweatshops of Prague, the brothels of Tel Aviv and smugglers in the Egyptian desert, via assassinations, rapes and bombings. Godman is portrayed as an immensely sympathetic character, as indeed is every member of his criminal family. This echoes Glennys nonjudgmental approach in the original book, but may incur the charge of excusing the inexcusable. Is Glenny braced for disapproval? He sighs.

Some people involved in organised crime are clearly off-the-scale psychopaths who enjoy violence. But that is, in my experience, a minority. Most are simply living in a social structure that is so far away from Shepherds Bush, where I live, that it is really hard to go in there and say: That is amoral behaviour. So Im not excusing them. But I dont want to be moral. I want to show people the way the world works, and for them to make up their minds about what is moral and immoral. I can assure even Daily Mail readers that they would take a turn to the dark side as well if they have no choice. On the whole, I think people are fundamentally good and they do not engage in criminal activity if they can avoid it.

Does he worry that the glossy opulence of the TV series runs the risk of glamorising crime? It is glamorous! he says. I mean, there are people in Brazil who are involved in really terrible criminal things, moving vast amounts of cocaine, who are invited to the most glamorous parties and who throw the most glamorous parties.

Since the publication of McMafia, Glenny has become a world authority on organised crime. His latest book, Nemesis, about a Brazilian favela drug lord, is an international bestseller being adapted into a feature film. It followed his 2011 investigation of cybercrime, DarkMarket. Traditional organised crime is feeling the impact of digital disruption as much as any other business. You dont need violence if youre involved in cybercrime, because you can be in Kazakhstan attacking someone in LA and you cash out the money in Dubai. You dont need a baseball bat in that situation. You dont need to be a thug. So cybercrime is attracting a whole new kind of character to the world of organised crime today.

Law enforcement is, Glenny says, simply becoming overwhelmed. What does he think can be done? If you want to do something about organised crime, the quickest way to do it is legalise drugs, or decriminalise, or at least start down that road. In Latin America, more than 100,000 people are murdered every year because of drug laws fashioned in Washington. Its unconscionable. Its the most immoral thing that Ive come across. Anyone who has worked in Central and South America, if they dont come out demanding drug law reform then in moral terms theyre criminals as far as Im concerned. Its appalling.

Its true, he concedes, that if drugs were removed from the black market, criminals would diversify into other forms of contraband. But nothing nothing comes even close to an equivalently valuable income stream. The key thing is that youd get sufficient tax revenues to deal with the associated health problems of drugs. Youre no longer having to deal with people who were getting that revenue and buying weapons with it, so you also reduce the violence. For example, in 2016 Colorado accrued in taxation from marijuana about $140m on sales of almost $1bn. That is more than twice the amount from alcohol sales and part of that money is hypothecated for the education and health systems. Has civilisation collapsed in Colorado? No, it hasnt, because theyre smoking as much dope as they were before. Its just thats its no longer organised crime who are getting the benefit, its the state. He shakes his head. Its just a no-brainer.

The 59-year-old has been making this argument for years, but his first TV show has catapulted him into an unfamiliar limelight, and at moments he still seems to be adjusting his eyes to the sudden brightness of his own star. It comes after a particularly dark chapter for Glenny. His wife, the BBC presenter Kirsty Lang, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, and two years earlier, his daughter from his first marriage took her own life. It has been a shattering three years. I wonder whether McMafias success now feels to Glenny like some kind of karmic reparation from the universe.

No, he says, but Im utterly, utterly thrilled about it. This series takes the subject very, very seriously, and will focus many more millions of peoples minds on the issues than I could ever do by just writing a book. Lots of viewers, he points out, buy drugs, sleep with trafficked sex workers or wear counterfeit T-shirts and perfume. Does he want them to watch McMafia and think about how they spend their money at the weekend?

Ab-so-lute-ly I do.

McMafia starts on New Years Day at 9pm on BBC One, with episode two airing the next day. McMafia by Misha Glenny (Vintage, 10.99). To order a copy for 9.34, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2017/dec/30/misha-glenny-organised-crime-uncertainty-brexit-opportunity-mcmafia

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