The presents have been opened, the turkeys have been roasted and the Boxing Day Sales are well underway – Christmas 2017 is over. And tonight, full of good intentions for the year ahead, the nation will sit down to watch a new drama about the murky world of organised crime.
McMafia, which starts this evening, is the new multi-million pound series by the BBC, based on the book of the same name by Misha Glenny, who is an Advisor to Global Witness. The show focuses on corruption as the common thread linking the corporate and the criminal. It looks at how lawyers, politicians and the intelligence agencies join forces with money launderers and international crime rings to move funds around the world from London. It is slick, sexy and undeniably good Bank Holiday viewing.
But in amidst the intrigue, action and high stakes storylines, I hope one thing remains crystal clear: this should not be seen as simply a fast and furious TV series. Although the content is fictionalised and not based on any individuals from real life, the themes it draws on are all too real. And the corrupt activity it seeks to shine a light on is happening - not just in the UK, but right across the world - and it is destroying the lives of millions of people.
We know this because, for the last two decades, Global Witness has exposed abuses of power and the theft of funds from some of the poorest countries that are channelled into schemes which benefit an elite – and often criminal – few. We have shown how this corruption drives poverty, crime, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. And we have used our investigations into corrupt activity to drive change – from new international regulations to revealing the stories which lead to criminal charges being brought against dodgy politicians and businessmen.
The achievement of McMafia is not simply to bring these issues to a wider audience, but to show how they are woven into the everyday lives of ordinary people, not just in the despotic countries stereotypically associated with corruption, but right here in the UK.
In tonight’s episode (don’t worry – no spoilers here!), viewers find out how easy it is for corrupt politicians to launder vast sums of money whilst hiding their identity.
We know this isn’t just drama. It’s real life. Here’s how it works:
First, they get the money – it might be profits from drugs trafficking, money they have skimmed off the state - or perhaps they’ve just asked for outright bribes in return for political favours.
Second, they hide it offshore, using established lawyers and banks to set up a series of secret companies registered in UK tax havens. Like a Russian doll, they set up one company inside another, until it becomes almost impossible to work out who really owns it.
Then they start moving the dirty money through these companies, so that it can’t be linked to them, until it comes out the other end looking legitimate. And finally, they spend it – on diamonds, champagne, a top education for their children, or a plush pad in Knightsbridge. Simple.
The impact of this activity is vast – and global. When money made from criminal activity can be detached from its original source, when people can hide their identity behind a multitude of anonymous companies – supported by seemingly respectable law firms and banks – and when international governance systems accept this as standard practice, it is little wonder so many of those seeking to fund their lavish lifestyles at the expense of ordinary people feel they are able to act with impunity.
It does not need to be like this. Change is possible – and we must start here in the UK by urging the Government to bring greater transparency to our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. These are the UK’s tax havens - the jurisdictions where over half of the anonymous companies featured in the Panama Papers were registered.
We could go a long way towards preventing the secrecy which facilitates this corruption by introducing public registers of these companies true beneficial owners. This year, the government must come up with a credible plan for when and how it will get the UK’s tax havens to introduce these registers, and make sure that the corrupt can no longer hide their ownership through these secret companies.
The BBC should be applauded for investing in McMafia – not only because it will provide a high octane hangover cure for many on New Year’s Day. But also because it has the potential to kickstart a new campaign to urge the Government to do the right thing and take action to prevent corruption. Because it is in our cities, on our streets and in our Parliament where some real progress can be made as we enter 2018.