A belter of a podcast, featuring a mad South African: Smoke Screen reviewed

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

Smoke Screen

Apple, Spotify and other platforms

I go back and forth on tobacco companies. On the one hand, they are merchants of death. On the other, cigarettes are fun and delicious. On the one hand, they push cigarettes on children, which is unconscionable. And on the other, I remember how I would gather in the park with other children to collectively venerate a ten-pack of Marlboro Lights, our soft, pink fingers shivering and struggling with the lighter mechanism, our untutored lips puffing ineffectually at the speckled filter, all of us beginning to grow woozy from the acrid smoke filling our virgin lungs as we stood there and thought: this is the life.

Luckily, Smoke Screen sidesteps this question to focus more squarely on corporate espionage within the tobacco industry. The show, by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is of the longform-article-turned-podcast variety. And while the Bureau are understandably keen on their investigative chops, the podcast wins so convincingly because of a cast of star characters. At its centre is the mystery of the show’s anti-heroine, a woman called Belinda Walter.

Walter is a white South African woman who, over the course of eight engrossing episodes, entangles herself with journalists, investigators, security services, tobacco firms and government watchdogs. In each case she makes contact with someone and earns their trust before withdrawing, recanting and turning on a power-hose of false allegations. Seemingly on impulse she becomes a triple agent, working as an attorney for small tobacco firms while spying on them for the South African security services and, separately, BAT. She then has a love affair with the man investigating BAT for tax fraud, an exceptionally straight investigator who asks her if she’s tax-compliant on their first date. She turns the hose on him and contacts a journalist, threatening to expose the entire arrangement. Then she destroys the journalist too. It’s madness.

Walter sows destruction randomly, like a stranger joining in to throw rice at a wedding they pass. Annoying and fascinating in equal measure, she’s not just a great character. She’s also a new character. This is a fine investigation, but in Belinda Walter, the journalists have struck dramatic gold.

Who is this woman? In recordings she affects a performed helplessness, a terse and intractable register into which she seems to withdraw when threatened. But giving a witness statement – one she will almost inevitably refuse to sign, retract or recant – she can give 40 pages of officially phrased, destructive allegations in the bland sans-serif vernacular of all lawyers. There seems to be no logic to her actions beyond a compulsive deceptiveness, a desperate conviction that by stitching someone up she stays one step ahead.

Why would she do this? I’m hesitant to say myself, lacking knowledge of Walter’s social and cultural context. It’s understood by writers of my tremblingly sensitive generation that unless you are discussing the Brits, the Italians, the Spanish, the French, other western European nations, Scandinavians, other northern European nations, Canadians, Australians, Russians, Americans and possibly Greeks, it’s considered rude to make airy and unfounded generalisations about an entire culture. I think of this as the Developed Nations League of Cultural Cliché, and as an act of writerly humility, I restrain any sweeping statements I make to the roughly one billion people who live within it.

So I can’t speak for myself about white South Africans. I am, however, in a relationship with a South African woman, who speaks to me often about her countrymen. She tells me that she can recognise white South Africans in airports from the hapless, dismayed manner with which they navigate the world. She can spot them abroad from what she describes as their particular, aggrieved, bereft way of being lost that’s unmistakeable once you know it. As a dutiful journalist, I checked this with a South African friend of hers. ‘Absolutely,’ he told me. ‘If it’s a couple, I can tell from 100 metres just by watching them get out of a car.’

This is how I have come to think about Belinda Walter. She is living somewhere else now, not answering emails from journalists. I imagine her stepping out of the house wearing a perplexed, aggrieved look, lost, and even now wandering helplessly into the path of someone she will be helpless to betray.

At long last, a belter of a podcast.

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