I spent much of last week listening to clever people try to understand charming con merchants and sweet-talking money-makers. No surprise, really: the scam show is a popular part of today’s audio lexicon, in danger of being overdone. Still, the three shows I’ve been devouring are worth your while.
First up is Persona: The French Deception. This tells the tale of Gilbert Chikli, French-Israeli master of the “president scam”, whereby the trickster contacts a middle-ranking corporate employee and persuades them that he’s the company boss. Once they’re persuaded, he gets them to believe that, due to terrorism or some other madness, they simply must transfer vast sums of money to him. (Yeah, I know, but it works, apparently. Plus, Chikli takes it far further than you might imagine.)
Numero two show is Swindler. Saviour. Mobster. Spy?, which concerns the Italian-English fraudster Giovanni Di Stefano. Di Stefano is known as an (unqualified) lawyer who got criminals such as Nicholas van Hoogstraten off on technicalities, though he also ran a sideline in swizzling lesser mortals out of their savings.
And finally, the not-scammy Londongrad. This concerns Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, Russians who have long operated legitimately within the highest echelons of English society.
The Lebedevs hold lovely charity bashes, talk to important people over dinner, and have acquired two UK newspapers, the ear of our beloved prime minister and (in the case of Evgeny) a life peerage. I’m including the show in my roundup because a) all three shows involve international politicking and money-making and b) it takes the skills of an investigative journalist to pinpoint what Lebedev and his son have been up to.
Each show has its own specific flavour, provided by a dedicated and talented host. Longform’s Evan Ratliff, who presents The French Deception, brings to it a career-long understanding of people who create their own reality, and invite others to join. He’s a fluent storyteller, with an American podcaster’s ability to lead the listener by the hand through a complicated plot and make it seem like a history of our times. Calum McCrae, who presents Swindler. Saviour. Mobster. Spy?, is more excitable, prone to jokey asides, and has a less authoritative tone. Londongrad’s Paul Caruana Galizia began his career by looking into the murder of his mother, Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He brings a sort of shock to his hosting, a disbelief that blatant, money-fuelled manoeuvring is allowed in Britain.
Still, these shows have undeniable similarities, and it’s not just because they’re all journalistically rigorous and excellently paced, with cute musical riffs. It’s their subjects. Chikli, Di Stefano and Lebedev Sr all come from modest backgrounds, and all transform themselves into globetrotting somebodies, popping up in unusual circumstances, creating enormous personal wealth. And they do this simply by getting on with other people, putting themselves into positions where riches just seem to… arrive. During the 1990s, Di Stefano befriended a property mogul in Belgrade. Soon after, the mogul was assassinated and Di Stefano took over his business. For a while, Evgeny Lebedev hung out with then Tatler editor Geordie Greig, until – bang! – his dad bought the Evening Standard and he was made its publisher. This kind of power-playing is a real talent, though perhaps one that involves people less cynical than you or me. (A common upper-class trait is being terrible at spotting wankers.)
If I had to invite any of them to tea, first choice would be Evgeny, who’s quiet and non-violent (“He listened very well, didn’t talk much,” says Nicky Haslam in episode one). Chikli and Di Giovanni would be far more entertaining, but they remind me of people I’ve encountered in the music business: knackeringly “on” all the time, with exceptionally dodgy friends (Di Giovanni was Serbian paramilitary mobster Arkan’s best man). And if I had to listen to these podcasts in order, though there’s little to choose between them, I would go Londongrad, The French Deception and then Swindler, simply because Londongrad is revelatory about the state of the UK today.
These stories do make you wonder about modern life; how money seems to materialise and evaporate for some people as though it isn’t real. It also makes you question how much others believe in films, in particular Goodfellas, a constant reference, with Catch Me If You Can and Wolf of Wall Street close runners-up. All millionaire wannabes are looking for a movie-star life, and not just for the best restaurant tables. They want a life that could be made into a movie. Films are expensive, though. Podcasting is a lot cheaper. There can’t be a scammer alive these days who isn’t being tracked by a keen person with a microphone.