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“It’s up to the journalist to peer through the smoke screen”

“It’s up to the journalist to peer through the smoke screen”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Thomas Bollen

An evening lecture on investigative journalism

Interest rate derivatives, share buy-back programmes, government bonds, deposit banks. Dear reader, are you still there? Investigative journalist Thomas Bollen (1984) lives for these kinds of financial-economic concepts – the more obscure the better. He meticulously dissects them, leaving no stone unturned. “The Netherlands is a wonderful country. Many things are well organised here. But if you delve deeper into the matter, you can see how corruption has permeated our financial systems, industry and, yes, our universities, too. And the people are the ones who suffer.” Bollen will give an English-language lecture in the Minderbroedersberg auditorium on the evening of Monday 18 November. 

Imagine getting a degree in financial economics only to enter the labour market in the midst of a financial crisis. That’s what happened to Thomas Bollen when he graduated from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2009. He definitely didn’t want to work for a bank or an insurance company. “It seemed like a very bad idea to me. I thought the financial world was rotten, morally corrupt. And I wondered: how could it have come to this? How did we end up in this crisis? Hadn’t I been paying attention in class?” But he hadbeen paying attention. “I was simply never taught the basis of the financial economy, how money creation and lending actually work.” That sounds worrying. “We were offered clearly defined courses, taught certain stock valuation models or pension models. We didn’t learn anything about the way the economy really works.” He turned to books for answers instead. The Mystery of Banking by Murray Rothbard was an eye-opener for him. “It’s quite funny, actually. A month ago, I wrote an article about theories of money creation and how the European Central Bank adheres to incorrect theories. The Mystery focuses on the ‘fractional reserve theory of banking’. I now know this isn’t a leading theory either, but the book did make me think at the time.” 

More cynical

Bollen decided to pursue another degree. He went to Nottingham, England, to study sustainable energy and entrepreneurship, England. Journalism played a modest part in his life; he sent his first pieces on financial subjects, written “just for fun”, to The Post Online, a Dutch news and opinion website. But his main reason for picking up a pen in his spare time was writing songs. “I’m a musician.”
Back in the Netherlands, he embarked on a career in consultancy at energy company Essent and RWE, a German electric utilities company. The business world let him down. As a young trainee, he thought he would work on large-scale energy transition processes. “I was quite idealistic and naive. I came to realise that the transition to a new system of renewable energy sources would be a very slow process, and that those kinds of companies are mostly concerned with commercial interests. Standing near those lignite mines of RWE, those huge swathes of land being excavated against a background of dozens of smoking chimneys and cooling towers, I thought, ‘OK, so thisis reality.’ The sustainability projects I worked on were considered casual experiments, done mainly for PR purposes. It started to bother me. Some of my colleagues accepted it. They were like, ‘This is the pace of things, it’s a well-paying job and I’ll just put my ideals aside’. Other people – very talented people, even – left. I wanted to stay, but I was becoming more and more cynical. I didn’t take my work seriously anymore.” Bollen didn’t want to play pretend, so he quit.

Smoke screen

He was drawn to professional journalism because he felt the need to explore and expose things, partly because he likes to and partly because of the social interests at stake. “Journalism is about investigating issues you’re interested in, and you get to write it all down! Even if you step on people’s toes!” At the end of 2016, he joined the independent Dutch journalistic platform Follow the Money.
Bollen dove into the “rotten” financial world. Take the drama with derivatives, financial products. “Small and medium-sized enterprises in the Netherlands suffered billions in losses because banks made them take out interest rate swaps: financial products with carefully hidden defects”, it says in one of his articles. And, in another, “For years, Dutch banks, the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets [AFM] and the Netherlands Ministry of Finance misinformed their customers and the public about a significant harmful effect of interest rate derivatives, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has stated in a landmark decision.” 
Before he started working on this case, Bollen knew relatively little about derivatives. “I did months of desk research: what’s going on, what are the issues? After that, I started talking to experts and the authorities involved.” Spokespeople and supervisory authorities, as it turned out, excel at putting up smoke screens. “They’ve turned giving away as little as possible into an art form. Take the AFM, for example. They’re terrified of saying the wrong thing. It’s terrible. The average Dutch person thinks the financial sector is well supervised, but that’s not the case at all. We don’t know what’s happening and neither does the supervisory authority, but it does pretend to know, creating a false sense of security.” 

Injustice

“It’s up to the journalist to peer through the smoke screen. You need to make sure you know what’s going on and have the necessary background knowledge. That’s how you can confront them.” According to Bollen, it’s also important to keep in mind that all parties want something from you and share their own version of the story. Banks want to show that this is a difficult situation they’re working hard to solve; the people who’ve sued the banks are hoping for sympathy, too. Bollen is also of the opinion that an investigative journalist must be able to discern where the facts end and “interpretation begins”. Objectivity is important, but he thinks it’s important to do more than “just report what party A said and what party B said. Lazy journalists leave it up to the reader to work everything out. I think sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade. We can say it’s an injustice when 19 thousand people are the victims of banking malpractice, right?”

Academic misconduct

Bollen clearly isn’t one to mince his words. He’s critical of universities, too. Together with a colleague, he revealed the close ties between Shell and a professor from Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) who neglected to mention that his research report had been sponsored by the oil and gas company. This same research report popped up a year later, in April 2018, when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was questioned about secret memos on the planned abolition of dividend tax by his government. The wheels of the political machine began to turn; questions were posed by the Dutch House of Representatives. “That was fun, of course, as it was my work that contributed to all of that. But I also write about topics that are completely ignored, haha, just because I feel the need to uncover some truth about them.”
The EUR professor is being investigated for academic misconduct, continues Bollen. “But he’s also been appointed professor at the University of Amsterdam! That’s just how it is, apparently. The academic world is full of nepotism. It intrigues me. I want to learn so much more about it.” Frustration is one of Bollen’s driving forces, then – but passion and curiosity even more so.
He was already like that as a child. “According to my mum, that is. I just wouldn’t stop asking questions. And I wasn’t often satisfied with the first answer I got.”

A lecture (in English) on investigative journalism by Thomas Bollen, Follow the Money journalist. Monday 18 November, 8:00 PM, Minderbroedersberg auditorium. Organised by Studium Generale and Observant.

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