“All I need is a banker. These wars are fought in the boardrooms, not the streets. Money, moving money is your weapon. You can sit behind your desk anywhere in the world and still bring down the man who killed your uncle.
If that’s what you want.”
So states Semiyon Kleiman to Alex Godman in episode one of McMafia.
BBC1 has gone all out with its latest high profile New Year drama following the success of 2017’s The Night Manager. The series is based interestingly, on the non-fiction book by Misha Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld. The series does diverge in some aspects with the book – the character of Alex Godman is fictionalised for example – but the themes remain intact, and many of the characters are based directly on real individuals. The book’s title is a play on McDonald’s, as international criminals have expanded their networks using a franchise model, similar to that used by the fast food chain.
Kleiman, a member of the Israeli Knesset with links to human trafficking and drugs is the first link our protagonist, Alex Godman, has to international crime. Until then, and despite his Russian family’s past, he has endeavoured to lead a life free from crime, building a brokerage that does not deal with Russian money or clients.
What caught my eye in McMafia however, was the deviation in focus from The Night Manager.
A bona-fide spy drama starring Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager focused on arms dealing and the attempts of MI6 and the CIA to bring to justice the “bad-guy” Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). It contained the exotic locations, romantic intrigues and nerve shredding close calls that we would expect to see from a spy thriller, and indeed many of these have already been replicated in McMafia with scenes taking place in Egypt, India and Israel as well as some of the more well-to-do parts of London.
The big difference in the two shows is encapsulated in the opening quote. The Night Manager’s focus was on a very traditional type of enemy to a state – illegal arms dealers. James Norton in McMafia is a banker, and the focus is therefore on an issue that is rarely seen or heard by the public unless it is reported in the press – money laundering.
To the public at large, money laundering remains an opaque concept, which until this year was successfully kept in the shadows by both those benefiting, and by enablers, including bankers. The concept of holding funds in foreign jurisdictions, evading tax or laundering the proceeds of criminality, is rightly, anathema to 99.9% of viewers of McMafia.
Over the last two years however, we have seen the leaking of two of the biggest tranches of data ever. Both the Panama Papers (2016) and the Paradise Papers from last year revealed that what may be unthinkable for the vast majority, is in fact common place for the extremely wealthy, corrupt and criminal. This was supported by investigations into the Russian Global Laundromat, which illustrated connections between Russian organised crime, and laundered money in the west, including through UK banks.
To be clear, the vast majority of the data from both the Panama and Paradise Papers revealed actions taken that were questionable, but on the whole not illegal. Mixed in with that however, was money, bonds and directorships with clear links to criminality.
McMafia highlights the simplicity for those with the need or will to disguise the source or size of their incomes. Very early on, Goldman highlights to Kleiman how he could, if he wanted, create “vehicles” in overseas British dependencies such as the Caymans or Bahamas with obscure directorships that could not be traced back to Kleiman. Indeed, we finally see Goldman authorise a payment for €600k. This money we then see moved through the Caymans and Dubai before finally ending up in Mumbai, India where it used by a drugs cartel to stymie a competitor.
Indeed given the global reaction to both the Paradise and Panama Papers, I think it unlikely that the selection of McMafia for the New Year’s primetime slot was coincidental.
For the public at large who may be unaware of money laundering and its impacts, it serves as a useful reminder. The opulent backdrops and absence of flashing blue lights that usually heralds a crime having been committed are very obviously absent. But we can see clearly – in McMafia’s case blindingly clearly – both how the crime is perpetrated, and the impact it has. Just because a criminal wears a D&G suit and lives in Kensington with offices in Mayfair, does not stop them being a criminal.
Indeed, if McMafia further highlights the global impact that money laundering has on nation states, then it could do us all a service. We have written about the impacts before on these pages. We know that the scale of dirty money accounts for around 3.6% of the planet’s GDP, and the value of laundered money in the UK amounts to around £23-57 billion each year.
Moreover, money laundering is not a victimless crime. Laundered money allows criminal enterprises to flourish. It costs the taxpayer to pay for policing to catch the criminals. Laundered money facilitates international crime including, as portrayed in McMafia, drugs, arms and people trafficking.
As Misha Glenny states himself in an interview this week with the Guardian; “Traditional organised crime is feeling the impact of digital disruption as much as any other business. You don’t need violence if you’re involved in cybercrime, because you can be in Kazakhstan attacking someone in LA and you cash out the money in Dubai. You don’t need a baseball bat in that situation. You don’t need to be a thug. So cybercrime is attracting a whole new kind of character to the world of organised crime today.”
As excellent a watch as McMafia is, we should pay heed to the above. Laundered money equates to criminality and we must do all we can to eradicate it from society.
McMafia is screening now on BBC1.
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