Robert O'Connor's first book Blood and Circuses charts his journeys through the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, looking at how football culture is tied up with ideas of nationhood, history, and power.
For the Artellus blog, Robert talks about how he went from rookie sports journalist in the UK to writing a book about footballing culture in remote corners of Eastern European.
Blood and Circuses is out now on Biteback Publishing, and can be purchased here.
“I knew from the earliest days of my career as a football journalist that I wanted to write about more than just the domestic game in England.
It’s not easy as a young writer (relatively speaking – I was 25 when I first turned my hand to scribbling about football) starting out in this business. The sheer breadth of competition that you’re up against is daunting. Finding a unique angle on something like the Premier League in the Sky Sports age is next to impossible.
All the biggest news stories are being covered by the heavyweight personalities at the national newspapers, and getting access to big names for interviews can be hellishly hard, even for those blessed with initiative and the fearlessness to stick your neck out (of which I had neither).
My solution was to pack a bag and fly off to Eastern Europe to look for stories that hadn’t been told. Football behind the old Iron Curtain has been quite well documented if you know where to look, so I had to look between the cracks of the cracks and go where virtually no English football journalist had been.
So in March 2016, scraping together a couple of hundred pounds from my meager income as an ad hoc freelancer, I got on a bus from Sheffield to Heathrow and flew to Pristina – the capital city of the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. It was the first time I had left the country alone, and I had no idea what I would do when I arrived. A couple of emails placed to the local football authorities hooked me up with a few names to interview and matches to attend, and within a week I had the foundations for what eventually became Blood & Circuses.
I’d made the transition to writing full-time only about six months earlier. I’d gone back to university at 26 to train properly as a journalist and jump through the NCTJ’s educational hoops, which gave me a bit of breathing room to start doing my first paid writing, at FourFourTwo and VICE. My first proper break came when I was offered a freelance job with the Bleacher Report doing these huge in-depth, 4,000-word investigations, which enabled me to finally quit the myriad part-time jobs I had stayed on in after my studies.
Freelance jobs came and went over the next few years. I moved back to London but eschewed pursuing staff work as I needed the freedom to be able to disappear for weeks at a time to obscure outposts in Eastern Europe. But my travels meant I was able to get my first heavyweight bylines; The Times, the BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent all carried my reporting over the next few years, and I was finally able to articulate exactly where my work as a journalist was leading me. Currently I contribute ad hoc as a freelance reporter to the i, The Times and TheSun (if any of my editors there are reading this and would like to take me on full-time, you’ve got my number).
I continued to write from wherever my travels took me up until the end of 2019, which by then included each of Europe’s separatist statelets; Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donetsk – the principal subjects of Blood & Circuses.
I believe I got the green light that the book was going to be published whilst half asleep in a backpackers hostel in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. That night at a snow-swept Olympiskiy Stadium as I watched a drab Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, the perishing cold didn’t bother me at all.”
Michael Gillard is an award-winning investigative journalist with decades of experience uncovering corruption, organised crime, and illegal activity at the heart of London's establishment and beyond.
His latest book LEGACY (Bloomsbury, 2019) traces the sinister underbelly of London's acclaimed 2012 Olympics, where organised crime and corruption were more involved than most people imagined.
Director of International Security Studies at RUSi and Artellus Associate Raffaello Pantucci spoke to Gillard about his work...
R: This is not your first book on organised crime and corruption in London, but tell us a bit about how this particular book came about?
M: It came about when I was in a pub, strangely, in 1999 and a load of detectives were there some of whom I was going to meet and amongst them there were two who looked particularly mournful and I asked one of them what was up and he explained to me that they had just come off this operation, this secret operation in East London targeting an organised crime figure called David Hunt who I had never heard of and that this character had walked away from the operation without any conviction. He had been held on remand in prison for slashing the throat of an associate which had happened at a car show room that the police were bugging, but for reasons that they weren’t aware of, they suspected corruption, he had got off because the witness had withdrawn his evidence. And then we got talking about the level of criminality that Mr Hunt was supposed to be involved and it just intrigued me enormously and from that point on I made it my business to find who he was and what he was about.
This is the first time David Hunt was one of the subjects of your books? Did he come up in earlier ones?
He was covered briefly in my first book Untouchables, which came out in 2004, but that was based on work about police corruption that I had started in 1999.
Were you worried writing about such dark and secretive topics as police and political corruption and organised criminals?
Not particularly, I am cautious. But if you look at the statistics British journalists by and large don’t face the types of threats that journalists in other countries, largely outside Europe, do face for reporting on this area. There have been two examples, interestingly enough in Northern Ireland and Ireland, of journalists being killed, not as a result of crossfire, but as a result of targeted assassination. One being Veronica Guerin in 1996 and the other being Martin O’Hagan in 2001. Veronica, who wrote about organised crime, and Marty, who wrote about the dirty war in Northern Ireland and the involvement of paramilitaries on either side in organised crime. But in general the idea of journalists being in danger for covering this area doesn’t really compute here, so there is not that kind of reason to be afraid. The bigger fear I feel about journalism in the UK is lawyers and the assault on freedom of expression through the rise of privacy law for the big rich, crooks and politicians.
So it was lawyers who scared you the most rather than any of the criminals or corrupt people you were looking at?
Rather than scare me, annoy me.
Could you tell us a bit more about Davey Hunt in particular?
David Hunt’s rise to the top of the gangster tree is typical of his generation – so he’s in his late fifties now – in terms of coming from a very hard, marginalised area in London, East London. And from a large family of brothers and sisters, I think he was the youngest who by the age of twenty-one had established himself as the top dog in his family which is no mean achievement.
I think there’s a misconception about gangster-ism in this country in particular. Very few gangsters are Robin Hood characters. Most of them are both moral conservatives and arch capitalists, and through heavy organised crime they want to legitimise themselves, and he was a classic example of that, and to do well for their family. And I think that at the time I started to look at him, he was on his way to becoming what they say in organised crime parlance, a legitimate businessman.
And he had done this through a number of means, through street cunning, a propensity for violence, psychological intimidation, and he is, you know, a street smart top gangster.
Some sociologists and writers try to look for environmental conditioning rather than the free will of some working class men to be career criminals. I think the very smart criminal Stephen Raymond said it best when he told me in an interview for Untouchables – “I’m a criminal by design not default.”
Raymond went on to tell me that he was “95% legitimate.” I asked about the other 5%, which he said he only did to piss off the police and show them how clever he was. Narcissism was his undoing and he eventually got a hefty sentence for a massive cocaine importation.
So by the time you were looking at Hunt he was a legit businessman rather than criminal anymore?
He was on his way to becoming a legitimate businessman. There had been quite incredible investments in a scrap metal yard on the Thames in Dagenham. He had bought himself a twenty-acre mansion in Essex. He had other business interests in entertainment – the infamous Epping Forest Country Club – and at the same time he was effectively a tax ghost. And when he did file any returns or make any mortgage applications, he lied about the size of his income; on paper he was a freelance scaffolder.
One of the fascinating things about reading the book is that you uncover all sorts of nefarious wrong doing and malfeasance, have you ever seen any prosecutions result from your work?
Unfortunately, I think I can say that I am a classic example of journalism having no effect whatsoever in terms of prosecutions. You can put it into the public domain, but at that point it’s down to the authorities. I think this country has a pretty poor record of prosecuting organised crime, its not because they don’t have the statutory tools, there are other problems with it. And also one of the things in this particular area is that after the events of 9/11 and the events in London of 7th of July, there was a wholesale disposition of policing away from organised crime work into counter-terrorism work. This combined with an anti-corruption campaign that took shape between 1994 and 2000 had a joint effect of stopping detectives having the necessary experience to tackle organised crime as the agenda moved elsewhere to tackling home-grown Jihadis and other issues around counter-terrorism.
Tell us a bit about your sources of information – how do you get people to tell you the ins and outs of these secretive worlds? And how do you assess/evaluate their reliability?
On the first part of that question, I think journalism is about getting out on the street, you can’t do it on the phone, you can’t do it on a computer alone. So I spend a lot of my time in pubs – obviously because I like drinking – but because it is a great leveller of getting police officers, criminals and people on the fringes of crime to talk to you. And they will talk to you in relaxed circumstances. That, however, has changed dramatically since the Leveson Inquiry into media standards and the effective criminalisation of relationships between journalists and police officers outside of a controlled press office environment. Therefore, the type of people I used to speak to for stories are terrified one of losing their pension if caught and two of possibly even going to prison. So it’s a lot more difficult now than it was before – but before, during the 90s and 2000s, because, as I mentioned earlier Scotland Yard was at war with itself over corruption issues, that created a lot of hurting detectives in that organisation. Any journalist worth their salt is able to exploit their pain for public gain, to get information about what’s going on and that’s certainly what I did.
And when it came to evaluating sources and their information?
In terms of evaluating, that’s a very interesting area – we’re currently in a sort of journalist policing space where believing fully in an alleged victim of crime has reaped some horrific results. For example, the recent imprisonment of Carl Beech for making up allegations about a VIP paedophile ring. That was the product of a swing in the pendulum towards police offers believing at the first instance anyone who comes in with an allegation of sex crime. Journalists have also suffered from that problem and I think that what we should do is neither believe or disbelieve but treat fairly and firmly. At the end of the day it is in our interests to establish whether we’re being lied to so that we don’t look like fools. When I’m dealing with criminals, who are notoriously slippery, or people on the edges of crime, I generally don’t believe anything they say until and unless they implicate themselves in the same crime they’re trying to implicate others in. That seems to me to be a good test; that criminals can gas on about any criminal activity that other people have done, but until they implicate themselves in crime to you they’re almost worthless. So I take that as a starting point. It’s interesting; when the police think about recruiting informants, who are largely and most effectively from the criminal world, they look at their motivations and they divide it into three main things: one is revenge, two is money – because police have an informant fund (I don’t and won’t) – three is to get rid of the opposition.
That’s how they gauge their effectiveness. Criminals aren’t going to speak to cops and implicate themselves in crime freely, whereas strangely the relationship between the journalist and the criminal is one where they can discuss their own criminality, sometimes boastfully, because they know that you’re not going to immediately arrest them or use that as leverage to make them become an informant. Basically, the first thing I look to is whether they implicate themselves in their own criminality, and then I look for corroboration, sometimes from police intelligence files and police officers and other criminals about that criminality.
At various times the book reads like a film – are there plans to shoot the stories you have written?
The simple answer is that, quite interestingly, there is a mania in television and film land at the moment for true crime stories that can be turned into returnable multiple-episodic dramas. The problem in this country is we do it very badly compared to America, and there are other reasons for that, but the most obvious one for me is that crime is treated a lot more seriously and with respect in the US because they understand its implications for wider society from the lowest level to the highest level of government. In this country, we reduce it to a broken-nosed slap-dash Guy Ritchie-type approach. Within that, journalists trivialise their own patch by inventing stuff that they don’t need to and trying to apply the American mafia model to the UK. I’ve always said that we have a very unique organised crime climate here that lends itself brilliantly to drama. When I devised the idea of doing this book I wrote a synopsis and almost immediately it got optioned by a film and TV company in the UK looking for this multiple-episodic state of the nation drama who could see that something like ‘Legacy’ was effectively ‘The Long Good Friday’ 40 years on and in real life.
Talking of The Long Good Friday, it was written by Barry Keeffe who I had the pleasure of meeting and we discussed the poor state of affairs in how crime and cops and corruption are represented on the UK screen. He said it was because the writers write ‘from the outside in’ whereas Barry, a former crime reporter in East London, wrote ‘from the inside out.’ Broadcasters here commission from the same incestuous pool of writers who believe they can turn their hand to any genre with credibility when they can’t. On the other hand younger writers who’ve grown up with The Wire think they can write that here forgetting it was conceived and written by a former Baltimore crime reporter and a retired Baltimore detective – from the inside out – and that Britain has its own unique crime scene.
Talking of which, I was recently the victim of crime – a smash and grab raid on my copyrighted journalism to make a very clichéd British crime film with some high profile actors. It’s about to get ugly unless they make amends.
Do you prefer writing in book form or long-form journalism for daily outlets?
I think books are more enjoyable when you’ve got something to say, because the ability to combine your investigative skills with a writing space is quite attractive but difficult and I think that the carbonisation of news journalism makes it difficult sometimes to express the richness of the material you’ve already got, whereas books allow you to be a lot more expansive and draw the reader in. And I think that a narrative non-fiction style of telling true crime stories is great, which is why, if you have access to transcripts of covert conversations or surveillance logs they lend themselves greatly towards helping that narrative non-fiction storytelling which is essential in getting people to move across what are often very complex and dark criminal landscapes.
On a lighter note – who is the most interesting character you’ve written about or come across?
I don’t believe in glorifying criminals or cops. This binary narrative that you get in drama and true crime books of cop vs. robber is quite dull; I’m more interested in the professional journeys of flawed people who try to do good but do good for doing bad or vice-versa. Many have a very odd redemptive arc, are never perfect, fatally flawed and when I see that in individuals, if you can then interview them thoroughly to get into the elements of their life, how they think, you can try and do justice to them as individuals. Of those characters, the two I’ve most enjoyed writing about are Paul Page, a royal protection officer at Buckingham Palace who was the subject of my 2nd book, and Jimmy Holmes who was a criminal associate of David Hunt who then decided after they fell out to become a guerrilla gangster and do a lot of hit and run activity against Hunt to try and get back at him for what he felt was his self-emasculation under Hunt. Those two characters plus a third I would add, a black armed robber from West London called Hector Harvey, who was so smooth and clever he was able to have over his criminal associates, the Flying Squad and the anti-corruption squad in a masterful piece of duplicity.
Those 3 characters probably are the ones I’d say are ready-made films. In fact, I have written a pilot drama with my two colleagues Michael Holden and David Whitehouse about Paul Page, who ran a Ponzi scheme at Buckingham Palace during the great housing bubble, so the story is bookended between the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2008.
Finally – what’s the next story you’re going to tackle?
I’m interested in how after the Leveson Inquiry into the so-called hacking scandal the media is being put back in its cage and on the back foot while big business and politicians are unfettered in their greed and corruption – I spoke earlier about the criminalisation of sources in the police – while this all happened, print journalists are becoming risk averse and controlled largely by lawyers worried about data protection and privacy issues. Meanwhile in the private sector, corporate intelligence companies are breaking the law willy-nilly and sucking up all your personal data instructed by pukka law firms on behalf of very ugly and dodgy clients here and abroad, be they corporations, oligarchs or captains of industry and I find that a very interesting area to look at for a book – the decline of journalism and the rise of corporate intelligence firms stealing your privacy and the revolving door with state intelligence and policing agencies.
Separately, and again with Michael and David, we are developing a drama around this idea of a newspaper investigations unit in an upmarket right-wing broadsheet operating in a post Leveson world. It’s called Monster.⬛️
Many thanks to Michael Gillard for this deep-dive into his world, and for the honour of being his literary agents. This interview has been edited for clarity.