Alumnus Eric Smith (55) is co-founder of the research platform Follow the Money, where he investigates people and companies that commit misconduct. „I really start to growl at people who commit crimes with malice aforethought."
You studied Economics at the VU Amsterdam in the 1980s. What kind of student were you?
„I wasn’t an average student, because of my professional squash career. I mainly chose the university because of its location. It was just a few hundred meters from two big squash clubs, and around the corner from the Amsterdamse Bos – everything a pro athlete could wish for. I would train before and after class, although I had an active social life too. In fact, I liked the study programme so much that I stuck with it for 10 years!”
Did you have a specific goal in mind for your studies?
„I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. It was a purely pragmatic choice. But during my studies, I discovered literature and developed a romantic desire to become a writer. My final paper was on economic history, but the professor said I was worthless as writer. I’d thought my experience as a pro athlete had made me indifferent to criticism, but that comment put me in a funk for three days. I thought: what in God’s name am I going to do now?”
„The three-piece suit I had to wear for my job felt more like a straitjacket."
Your next stop turned out to be an Internet company, but you only stayed there a short time. Why was that?
„I had trouble with the transition from the solitary life of an individual pro athlete and the wild life I led in my free time to the corset of a professional life. The three-piece suit I had to wear for my job felt more like a straitjacket. I suddenly had to do things, and it felt complicated to work on a business model that I wasn’t 100 percent passionate about.”
So you ended up as a writer for the business magazine Quote, where you eventually became the Editor-in-Chief. Was that a dream come true?
„I had never even heard of the magazine, but I applied anyway and to my surprise Jort (Kelder, ed.) invited me for an interview. He thought it was interesting that I came from a family of entrepreneurs, and that I’d been a pro athlete. Only later did I learn that they’d just throw me out if I couldn’t write."
„I wrote my first pieces in tears."
„I wrote my first pieces in tears. I was insecure, and I’d freeze up when I had to write big articles. I was fine at telling stories, or about my squash adventures abroad with people at the bar, but writing was something totally different. I had to drag myself through it.”
Before this interview, I spoke with some shared acquaintances from the industry. Some of them called you a ‘pit bull’. Do you sometimes bite too hard?
„When I started at Quote, I depicted people without mercy. I came from the sports world, I wanted to win, and I was aggressive in that. But that combativeness was coupled with a developing engagement. Those articles weren’t wrong, but when I read some of them now, I think: wow, that was a bit harsh.”
What made you bare your teeth like that?
„The greater the social importance of the injustice, the more angry I became. I mean; some perpetrators just gradually find themselves in that world. Take the bankers who applied with ABN Amro in the 1990s, for example, where they developed complicated and dirty products like derivatives. If you don’t stop and think about your work every once in a while, you can start down a slippery slope. It’s still dumb, but to a certain point I think: these things can happen. But I really start to growl at people who commit crimes with malice aforethought.
„You’re asking for problems if you don’t have students think about ethical or philosophical questions before they become bankers or accountants."
„In that context, I often think back to my studies, and I’m still amazed at the limited dialogue at the university back then. We learned how things worked, but not the ‘why’ behind it all. Ethical or philosophical questions were rarely addressed. You’re asking for problems if you don’t have students think about those aspects before they become bankers or accountants. Economics is a perfect example of a moral science. Everything I do deals with morality. As a journalist, you’re also a bit of a preacher too.”
I can imagine that you have to put in a lot of work on certain issues, but then little or nothing changes. Does that frustrate you?
„Sometimes, although some of the issues become relevant again later on. Take Russia, for example. Last year we published a big piece on the Houthoff law firm, which some people call the ‘Kremlin on the Zuidas’. With the war in Ukraine, that investigation has suddenly become interesting again. The partners at that firm have deliberately chosen to work for that specific clientele. In principle, that should at least raise some major questions. Because you know that regime has been held together by theft and corruption for 20 years, and is becoming increasingly dictatorial. And the people in that office know it full well too.”
„Humans’ evil nature continues to astonish me."
You founded FTM 12 years ago now. Is there anything that still surprises you?
„Humans’ evil nature continues to astonish me. But it also fascinates me, which is one of the most important conditions for journalism. For me, it’s mainly about the investigation. How did someone get away with that? It’s always a competition to find out, and I’ve been competitive all my life. Only now it’s an intellectual competition.”
One of the highlights of your career was the biography you wrote about businesswoman Nina Brink, now Nina Storms. What drew you to write about her?
„It was the first time that I’d followed the trail of a woman with a dubious morality. She also left the toughest guys in the city in her dust. That fascinated me to no end. She was more aggressive than all the guys in business that I’d investigated before. And it wasn’t long before she sent her lawyers after me. I took that as an encouragement at first, but I’ve changed my mind since then."
„I have to admit that you can be sued to death here in the Netherlands."
„I was on her bad side for years. Two years before the book was published, I was up to my ears in lawsuits. My career, my assets, the court seizing my assets – everything was on the line. But I have no regrets, although it was hard at times. It was so much negative energy. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone."
„And it didn’t turn out to be a victory for journalism either. I have to admit that you can be sued to death here in the Netherlands. It taught me how vulnerable you are as a journalist. It’s actually a way to silence you. So it’s important for you to be legally resilient. At FTM, we’ve built up a good buffer for that, just in case. Our investigative journalists have to rest assured that we’ll defend them to the bitter end.”