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Misha Glenny on the secrets of the mafia

March 16, 2009

Gunmen, prostitutes and mafia mobsters on the advertising posters make ‘McMafia’ by Misha Glenny look like a bonkbuster airport novel.

Still, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

It is actually a serious, thoroughly researched piece of investigative journalism that involved the author risking his life amongst drug barons in Colombia and Mafia mobsters in Russia.

macmafia-cover21As with the book, Misha Glenny’s appearance is deceptive – he seems so warm, funny, self-deprecating and approachable. It is hard to imagine he has the courage, tenacity and cunning that he deployed in tracking down the origin of the heroin, trafficked people, blood diamonds and dirty money flooding into the Balkans after the collapse of communism. He willingly shared the tricks of his trade with journalism students at the University of Westminster, starting with the importance of actually going to the places where the story starts and talking to people.

“The Internet contains significant dangers – on more than one occasion I’ve found stories there that were complete hogwash. Use it as a guide but not as a source. The only way to know for sure about a story is to go there and do it for yourself” he warned.

Misha Glenny admits he owes his success in writing ‘McMafia’ to his years as BBC Correspondent for Central Europe, covering the Balkan wars and writing ‘The Fall of Yugoslavia’. This means that wherever he goes in the world he can rely on the local BBC bureau or stringer to put him in touch with local reporters, minders, interpreters, guides and drivers who can be trusted.

Personal Qualities

He also has great personal resources. For example he can read all the European languages and speak fluently in most of them.

“Our dependence on English really restricts our vision. I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is for media practitioners to know languages,” he stressed.

He confided that even he felt scared in Colombia “it was very lonely, quite intimidating, like going into the belly of the beast”. In Russia it took six months of negotiating with go-betweens to get a meeting with a Mafia godfather, and a lot of guts to sit down and interview him for two hours.

The fall of communism triggered a wave of organised crime, according to Glenny. “The rape of Russia’s mineral resources was the grandest larceny in history” he says “And you can see the results in premier league football clubs across this country”.

What we cannot see, he claims, is that Russian newspaper proprietors would deliberately get their newspapers to defame leading oligarchs and other public figures so that they could claim large sums in damages as a way of disguising the source of their wealth.

Yet in such a world of dirty tricks Misha Glenny strives to keep his journalism pure. He spoke disapprovingly of his colleague who dressed up as a nurse and sneaked into the hospital in Bosnia where British soldiers who’d been freed after a kidnapping were being treated. He says he would not use such a tactic.

His top tip for aspiring journalists is to show respect for interviewees, try to gain their trust and get them to talk about themselves, giving them plenty of time to tell stories in their own words, rather than challenging them in the interview in the style of Jeremy Paxman. “You can always check up on them afterwards” Glenny says.

Thanks to the University of Westminster’s exchange programme with Moscow State University, some of our budding foreign correspondents might be able to follow the trail that Misha Glenny has blazed. And all will be inspired by his professionalism, dedication and bravery.

McMafia by Misha Glenny is published by Bodley Head 2009.

by Jan Whyatt

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