Investigative journalist and historian Misha Glenny is no stranger to writing books that leave a lasting impression. Specialising in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, he was formerly Central Europe correspondent first for the Guardian and then for the BBC, and has chronicled the collapse of communism and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Glenny most recently inspired the BBC’s new flagship drama, McMafia.
The eight-part series is based on the book with the same name that Glenny wrote 10 years ago, which investigates the spread of transnational, organised crime around the world following the break-up of the Soviet bloc – from gunrunners in Ukraine to money launderers in Dubai.
“I can’t read balance sheets and I’m not a forensic document reader – I come from a different angle, one of cultural absorption,” Glenny said, speaking at a recent Centre for Investigative Journalism event at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“I speak multiple foreign languages and will ensure to read up on the history of each country I go to, watch films and read novels about it, attempting to understand what the political and historical dynamics are. Same for the person I’m interviewing, and their industry.”
Glenny noted that through his books, he doesn't question the morality of his interviewees, he simply tries to explain to readers why the world is working as it is. He leaves it up to the audience to make a decision on whether the people involved are acting morally or not.
“If you want to write a book, you have to find a subject that shines a light on an issue, but also one that you think other people would be interested in. Do basic research and talk to your friends about that story – judge their interest,” he said.
“Sometimes you are telling people about a story and you see their jaw drop – it’s those you should pursue, but you really have to be engaged yourself.”
When he comes across a story, his process is to research around what he describes as the ‘circularity of information’ on the internet, in English and the original language associated with the topic.
“You then have to talk to the people at the heart of the story,” he said.
“From all the information on the internet, the only way you’re going to get a good story is to talk to the people involved. Although we've never had access to as much information as we do now, we have never had as much access to information that is entirely bullshit.
“For that reason, investigating things where they are, or have happened, was never more important than it is now.”
I can’t read balance sheets and I’m not a forensic document reader – I come from a different angle, one of cultural absorptionMisha Glenny
Glenny spoke to a range of people for the book, including both perpetrators and victims of organised crime, exploring topics such as consumer demands for drugs, sex trafficking and illegal labour. But it wasn’t easy – he noted that gathering information, finding sources, writing it up and funding the work was a challenge.
“I did some research primarily to put a book proposal together, where I decided to go around the world talking to criminals – a lot of the literature about organised crime was based upon police reports, lawyers and victims, but little on the testimony of those involved.
“It was difficult to secure interviews. It often felt like I was applying to interview the president, but I noticed that everyone I spoke to had a different perspective, fact or observation that illuminated my understanding of each story."
But when asking the difficult questions, how do you get people to open up and trust you as a reporter?
“People love to talk about themselves, so if you can find a way of getting people to open up, they will chat to you till the cows come home,” he said, explaining he doesn't just jump in with the tough questions.
“I interview people at length over many hours, firstly asking them where they were born, what their parents do for a living and about their childhood – and it gets them to reveal their own narrative, so when it gets to talking about their criminal activity, they are very open about it.
“Let them let it all hang out.”
Glenny is an executive producer on the TV series McMafia, which is based on his critically-acclaimed book.
“It’s great fun after the lonely life of writing longform journalism,” he said, explaining that he's been in high demand from production companies since McMafia has taken off.
“There’s this huge industry that needs to come up with ideas all the time, so when people go out and do original research in journalism, they should bear in mind that they are building up real assets for later on,” he said.
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