McMafia is not what most organised crime in Britain really looks like

A glitzy way to do organised crime. BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

McMafia, a new BBC drama, is glitzy, glamorous and seductively appealing. Loosely based on Misha Glenny’s engaging and successful book on global organised crime, the series takes viewers on a journey from the bright lights of London to the beaches of Tel Aviv and the opulence of Versailles, with constant allusions to Moscow, the US and elsewhere.

McMafia’s unremitting focus on business and financial jargon has helped to challenge the portrayal of organised crime as being all about blue-collar crimes related to drugs importation and people smuggling. McMafia is instead rooted in the white-collar crimes associated with corporate finance. That is laudable. Yet despite this, the show continues the trend of showing organised crime through the prism of globalisation, technological shifts and international criminal networks. By doing so, it paints a partial and, frankly, traditional picture.

And this is not what we have seen in our own research studies on organised crime in Britain.

Conducting research with organised criminals is never easy – a fact brought home to us while sitting in a seedy cafe in Manchester, waiting for a “hitman” to turn up. Academic researchers rarely get to interview people actually involved in organised crime and when they do, it is usually only because prison contacts have been prepared to vouch for the fact that we can be “trusted”. The picture that these contacts paint is a million miles away from the glossy ones which we have seen in McMafia, even if making money is often the common goal.

While McMafia has rightly drawn praise from reviewers, its model of organised crime is based largely on an Italian mafia model known through films such as the The Godfather. That model is about family loyalty and criminal opportunities being passed on from one generation to the next. This “mafia mythology” underpins most media portrayals of organised crime, and few dramas have managed the rare quality of The Sopranos, which managed to both reinforce this mafia mythology, while proving equally capable of sending it up.

The hitmen we’ve encountered are not the well-built, shaved-headed Russians of McMafia who kill with a caviar knife, but are instead involved in a brutal act of final arbitration in humdrum business disputes. We found their costs of taking a life could be relatively low, starting from around £200.

From cannabis cultivation to protection rackets, contemporary British organised crime is shaped by the forces of globalisation and deindustrialisation which have increasingly normalised criminal activity. Yet while organised crime has been democratised and is no longer the narrow preserve of professional family crime firms such as the Krays and Richardsons, violence remains the ultimate arbiter of disputes.

Seizing opportunities

The mafia model is rare in the British context, where organised crime has much more to do with short-term criminal opportunities which emerge quickly, get exploited by groups of men who come together and then dissipate when that opportunity passes.

Unlike McMafia which is set in the world of glamour, pied-a-terres and high finance, organised crime is usually located in working-class communities. The men involved are not British godfathers, but are involved in a multitude of legitimate and illegitimate businesses, governed by a working class entrepreneurial zeal with an eye for a profit. They have their origins mostly in tough, impoverished neighbourhoods. Only some of those involved are caught and many are skilled enough at exploiting these short-term business opportunities to largely avoid detection by the authorities.

Some have claimed that organised criminal activity in Britain seems to be mainly concentrated in London, the South East, North West and West Midlands. But the reality might simply be that bigger police forces are simply more likely to understand their crime problem via the prism of organised crime and therefore target criminals accordingly.

Driven by the market

One thing McMafia certainly gets right is that violence, or the coercive threat of it, is vital in oiling the wheels of organised crime. That violence finds its origins early: it is learned in boxing gyms, on football terraces, in pubs and clubs, in fights at school and in prison.

But the people meting out this violence live difficult lives. In Britain, socioeconomic austerity, relentless exploitation of cheap, expendable labour and the upward flood of wealth towards the elite has made life more and more precarious. The market drives much of this. And that was the initial premise to Glenny’s factual McMafia – that organised crime is best understood by evolving practices of consumerism and markets of demand.

Towards the end of the first episode of the BBC drama, Juliette Rylance’s character Rebecca Harper gives a speech at the Bloom Institute in which she considers “whether ethical capitalism is possible”. Her character suggests that: “The unethical pursuit of profit at the expense of other people is no longer acceptable.” However, she concludes that “the problem does not lie with capitalism” but with the few, bad, capitalists who have put “self-interest ahead of the good of the people”.

Such a view clearly shields us from the truth: that organised crime is a lot closer than we think. It’s there in the backdrop, propping up the coffee shop, the takeaway, or the numerous other cash-generating businesses that regularly spring up and shut down on British high streets. While McMafia seems willing to make this point in a limited way, its glitz and glamour has located a criminal class among the glitzy elites and foreign characters. Yet organised crime is ever present, practised close by, every day, by ordinary people. We have become blind to this reality – a reality not helped by the fictional, seducing sheen of McMafia.