Marketing podcast: Dancing with the wolves of 1MDB

When investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown first launched her blog, Sarawak Report, in 2010, she mainly focused on timber corruption in Borneo and stayed away from affairs in Peninsular Malaysia, including the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The only time she had published a story about 1MDB was on 8 July 2013, which addressed allegations of Goldman Sachs stealing US$200 million from 1MDB.

However, a tip off on the Christmas of 2013 about 1MDB's potential connection with The Wolf of Wall Street movie got her started on the arduous journey of exposing the world's biggest financial scandals that shook the globe. While she is now known for her exposé, Marketing wanted to find out what it was like pursuing the story behind the scenes. In an excerpt from the latest Marketing Connected podcast series, Rewcastle-Brown shares what compelled her to pursue the story despite being a target of smear campaigns and how she handled the fear and worry that comes with handling investigative stories. Listen to the full episode here.

Marketing: Your reporting on 1MDB caused you to be a target of smear campaigns. What was it like for you then, especially in terms of your mental health?

Rewcastle-Brown: Yes, there were so many sites, so many campaigns you know. You'd wake up one morning and suddenly a whole new operation would be underway with all these criticisms. Something that a journalist, particularly an investigative journalist, learns pretty early on and you have to get to grips with this mentally, is when people start turning against you as the journalist. That means you’re having an impact. Don't take it personally. If these guys could unravel your story, if they could show your journalism to be at fault, then they would deal with you simply by doing just that.

But because they can’t deal with you, because you're telling the right story, and you're telling the truth and it's having an impact, so what do they do then? They start to try and attack you.

When people turn on journalists, you realise they can’t rebut the story, and people need to realise that. Journalists have to be phlegmatic about that.

The going can get tough when people in the public eye start to target you as the journalist, when all you’re doing is your job, reporting in the public interest, what is going on.

So that’s how you cope with it mentally, you say: "Oh good! Clearly, they are having to attack me. That means they are struggling." That’s the first thing you do. Then it’s a story on its own. It was really interesting to watch as all the attacks started to develop, because it gave me an early sort of insight into the deliberate manipulation of social media. It hadn’t occurred to me, I’m a fairly simple, straight-forward sort of person. I could see that social media online was a brilliant way of communicating that humans hadn’t had before. 

I could sit in London and write about Malaysia and communicate with Malaysians and get stories back from Malaysia, which was very handy given that journalists at that time were too intimated to do that. So, I thought I was performing quite a useful role at that time. What I didn’t even think of at that time was that likewise, this could be used to deceive, to make things up. As I started to become the target of these operations. I started to investigate the whole world of manipulative PR. That created an opening, a way to make money by assisting oppressive regimes, corrupt people who had lots of money, who would pay them to abuse social media, to mislead people, in a way that perhaps some practitioners weren’t aware of.

I very soon discovered that the people who were doing these attacks on me were actually by and large sophisticated PR companies based back home, near me in London.

These weren’t angry Malaysians as they pretended to be. These were slick, city suited, well educated British and American people, who used to be journalists in many cases, and decided to make a little more money in public relations, going into this dirty underworld of fake social media. They were using all their skills and abusing all their skills to try and discredit, defame me, and create a whole fake news platform on social media to try and give people a way of attacking me. So, that was a really useful insight. There was one company, FBC Media, which I exposed very early on. Bell Pottinger was another company, one of the biggest, most prestigious British PR companies ever, that was eventually exposed for attacking myself and many others, and of course it’s now been closed down for its egregious activities.

And there are others, because there’s so much money in this. That became a parallel investigation. So, finding myself the target of this actually opened up a great new area of investigation for me as a journalist.

Marketing: Sarawak Report was blocked from 2015 to 2018 due to your reporting on 1MDB. You also sought police protection in London after being followed and photographed in Hyde Park. Was there a point in time you wanted to throw in the towel?

Rewcastle-Brown: Well if I was doing this for money, yes, I would, wouldn’t I? Because it's not a great business model, doing this sort of thing. In a way, I hadn’t really thought about giving up because I didn’t know how I could now. I sort of looked to think, I wonder when we get to that stage of things, then maybe I could give up. I could sort of go and teach journalism to young teenagers who might be interested at school or something. Maybe I can go and have a quiet life. But I have not quite reached that corner yet.

You cannot just walk away from something as big as what’s been going on at Malaysia with 1MDB. How can I?

There are always people like you ringing me up, wanting to push this on.

Marketing: As journalists, we carry the story of people we meet with us. I assume the stress on you must have been immense. How did you handle the fear and worry that comes with investigating such stories?

Rewcastle-Brown: Fear is the greatest enemy. You mustn’t let fear run away with you. You have to keep calm in a crisis. I did what, 20 years in live television. You know you have to get used of that feeling of “Oh my goodness, 10, nine, eight, seven, six, you’re going to have to perform.” You don’t want to jump over your words like I am now. You’ve got to relax, you’ve got to get it right, and you just have to make the best of them. When things start to go wrong, all you can do is make the best of the situation, and the way to do that is to keep calm.

You’re not going to make things better by letting fears run away with you.

So that was the sort of mental approach that is kind of my job, kind of enforced me to adopt. I found that very useful, when things got a bit scary or shaky or pressured in the course of this 1MDB. It really doesn’t help to get wound up, shut scream or panic. It only helps to take a deep breath and think, what’s the best way to handle this.

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