Last week I wrote a blog post about French gangster Jacques Cassandri, who is currently on trial for laundering the proceeds of a bank robbery that he claimed,in a book he wrote, to have masterminded. And this has started me thinking about criminals making money by writing about their crimes. Way back in October 2007, then-chancellor Gordon Brown gave a speech at the University of Westminster on the theme of liberty, in which he said: “No one wants to see criminals profiting from publishing books about their crimes. At the same time, we must ensure that the freedom of the press to investigate and report is maintained. Our preferred option, subject to further technical examination, would be for the public to have the right through civil orders to recover payments made to people where these payments can be constituted as benefits of crime.” As far as I am aware – and I would be delighted to be wrong about this – no such civil orders have yet been made.
And yet Monsieur Cassandri is far from the only example of criminal-turned-autobiographer. In 2007, OJ Simpson’s book “If I Did It” was leaked online after publication was cancelled. The book told the story of how the American footballer was tried and acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, and before publication was abandoned the publisher had said that she thought the profits would go to Simpson’s children rather than to him. In the end, the book was renamed “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer”, and a Florida bankruptcy court awarded the publication rights – and therefore the profits – to the Goldman family.
Nick Leeson wrote his story while he was in prison, with the book “Rogue Trader” being published in 1996 and then made into a film starring Ewan McGregor in 1999. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2009, Leeson explained that the profits from the first book were used to pay his lawyers. A 2015 piece in the same newspaper comments that “on his release, liquidators from the bank served him with a bill for £100 million and he was only allowed to earn a modest monthly living allowance. He did this by delivering after dinner speeches, for which he was paid handsomely, often £6,000 a pop. Initially, the liquidators took a cut, but after five years they finally gave up.”
I appreciate that criminal autobiographies can be instructive; this is why “Mein Kampf” should not be banned, because it gives such a great insight into the mind of Hitler. I also see that they can be helpful to criminologists and sociologists who may be researching what makes a person stray from the path of righteousness – and therefore what can be done to prevent future crime. But I cannot help sympathising with Nicholas Edwards, a senior investment banker in the London office of Barings who met Leeson in Singapore. In that same Telegraph article in February 2015, he takes this view: “I do think it is wrong that Nick is able to earn a living from his notoriety. If he wants to earn a living stacking shelves at Tesco, that’s absolutely fine. But I do have a problem with someone paying him a handsome fee for talking about how he brought down Barings.”