A couple of juicy investigative podcasts last week: Fat Leonard, which exposes the US navy’s taste for drugs, booze, fancy hotels, prostitutes and general off-sea high living. And Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera, which exposes the British taste for… tacky reality shows.
Fat Leonard, as a show, is already a sensation in the US. In it, British investigative journalist Tom Wright interviews Malaysian businessman Leonard Francis, at length and in great detail, about the special services (see above) that Francis used to provide to high-ups in the US navy when its ships docked in Singapore. These services did not come cheap (Francis used them to bribe officers into giving his firm multimillion-pound deals with the navy), and he has already pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery and is helping investigators. Now suffering from kidney cancer, Francis is under house arrest in San Diego, awaiting his sentence. Meanwhile, 33 people have been charged with crimes, and nine navy officers, including a rear admiral who eventually worked at the Pentagon, have been indicted for bribery and corruption. They’re about to be tried; their defence counsel has tried to subpoena Wright’s tapes, but he has said no.
So, an ongoing case, much lip-smacking raw material, and the podcast makes good use of it all. Wright, who smuggled in a microphone to Francis’s home, does well in drawing out the scandalous details. A type familiar to anyone who has hung out around rock stars, Francis is the fun-fixer: the bullying, larger-than-life friend who blags everyone in as VIPs, sources the strongest drugs, the flashiest restaurants, the most beautiful and, who would have thought it, available women. His tales may be salacious, but they ring true. He has video evidence. He kept notes.
What raises the podcast above most is that Wright, while enjoying the ride, is not totally swept away. Early on, he wonders why Francis is coming clean and surmises that it is because he feels stitched up by the navy. “I’ve done a lot over the past 30 years, supporting hundreds, if not thousands, of ships, sailors and marines,” says Francis. “I’ve never brought any harm to the United States… Nobody got hurt.” Wright never takes Francis completely at face value: he’s brusque in his storytelling and interviews other sources too.
This makes for an interesting frisson that comes to a head in episode six, when Wright interviews Morena Galvizio de Jesus, who has two children with Francis and accuses him of treating her badly (he won’t let her see the children). “I think you’re a misogynist,” says Wright to Francis, who does not react well. Wright interviews other women too: Paula, an ex-navy helicopter pilot who blew the whistle on a previous scandal, and Marcy, the wife of a navy captain who was corrupted by Francis. The establishment hasn’t given them a second thought.
In Harsh Reality the stakes are smaller, but no less human. Over four episodes, it tells the tale and fallout of a 2004 Sky reality TV show, There’s Something About Miriam, which sold itself as a dating show with a twist: the model Miriam Rivera, whose heart the young male competitors were trying to win, was a transgender woman. I know: exploitation to the max! But this is an enjoyable listen: dynamic, with some excellent interviews with those involved. Plus host Trace Lysette is American, which leads to some hilarious descriptions of the UK.
Still, there’s no denying the cruel tabloid approach of the reality TV of that time, how daft young men were tricked into signing contracts and taking part in a telly stitch-up without understanding what was going on. And how Rivera, queen of the NYC ballroom scene, was disrespected and used as a punchline. Treating trans people, especially trans women, as freaks was far too common, and There’s Something About Miriam, while pretending to be a celebration of transgender life, was, in the end, just another circus.
The strength of both Fat Leonard and Harsh Reality is in their acknowledgment that, for every person having a wild time, and for every person making money out of that wild time, there are others who are being exploited. Someone who understood this treatment from a colonised perspective was the late superstar cultural intellectual Stuart Hall.
Born in Jamaica in 1932, Hall spent his adult life in the UK, and in Radio 3’s Sunday Feature: Afterwords, which opened with a lovely soundscape of voices, we heard about his academic approach. Hall’s combining of scholarship with personal experience – cultural identity studies – seems almost commonplace now, but still has an effect. It was lovely to hear one of the younger speakers say that Hall inspires her today.