Anthea Lawson - Let's go get those bastards

After years of investigation and campaigning, Anthea Lawson shares with us insights into what her experiences have been. Her work continues to investigate the deep links between our inner lives, our souls and our psychology and how that manifests in the world we're creating together.

Some of the most liberating conversations I had with longstanding activists were the ones where I realized that the people who managed to really keep going are doing their campaigning as a practice and not so much as a goal.

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About the speaker

Anthea Lawson is an investigator, research, campaigner and the author of The Entangled Activist: Learning to recognise the master's tools. She worked for Global Witness, Amnesty International, and many other campaign groups. Over two decades, she campaigned to shut down tax havens and stop banks fuelling corruption and ecological destruction. She enjoys swimming in rivers and climbing mountains or trees.


I have nearly always been doing the kind of investigation that is out to prove a point. It comes from a place of, we can see there is something wrong with the system. We are going to gather evidence to show that this particular bit of it isn't working. Just as, you know, there are some people who have got a sort of completist attitude towards getting all of the data there, there are some people who – they are most familiar in an environment where there's something to be cross about. I am not doing investigation as my job at the moment. So some of my perspectives on this are based on having reflected on what I was doing when I was doing that. 

I'm Anthea Lawson. I'm a writer, author and campaigner. I started out as a journalist. I trained and worked as a reporter at the Times, and I did that for not very long really, just a few years. And then I switched to working for campaign groups, human rights and environmental campaign groups mostly, using my journalism skills to do investigations for them and present our findings for the purpose of campaigning. To try and get legal change, to fight and argue for new laws and new treaties. More recently, I've just written a book about activism, about how we try and get change, called The Entangled Activist, in which I've talked to a lot of other activists about – and campaigners and investigators –  about some of the questions I had about what I was doing.

There was a sort of instinctive feeling that I was interested in journalism during my teens. It wasn't a particularly sort of crusading feeling, which it sort of became later. I was backpacking after I finished university. I'd studied History and I found myself talking to people and just asking them things and being really interested in asking people about their lives and how things were for them. And the way I was writing things in my diary, you know, just observations and impressions. It sort of became clear at that point that I really enjoyed that process. 

I wasn't thinking of it as investigation at the time, I was more thinking of it as reporting. And then after I started working as a journalist, I was becoming frustrated with being yoked to the daily news cycle. And of course it's part of what journalists have to do. It's part of what news reporters have to do on newspapers. You just get phoned up by the news desk and sent off to whatever is happening. And I was the lowest of the low. I'd started as a graduate trainee at the Times and so I was just in the pool of reporters. I hadn't yet got myself a specialism or anything. And so I would just be sent off on whatever was happening.

There just wasn't time to think. And I'm not sure it was the best use of me. And I'm not sure I was brilliant at it. I was probably competent, because it was just about getting there first and about being sort of most aggressive sometimes and pushing your way to the front and finding the person to ask the questions. And that's when I started thinking about investigation, because that's where you actually dig below the surface of things, and you're not just in thrall to what the system has decided is the agenda. Which is what's going on in government that day, who said what stupid thing, what's going on in the courts, who's crashed into who, all of that. I wanted to get below the surface. 

What I was starting to realize was that this thing that I had thought I wanted to do, I didn't want to do that aspect of it. Fate intervened here. I didn't sort of move to doing something else in a smooth way. I burnt out with chronic fatigue. And so in the year of not working that then ensued, because I couldn't work, that's when I really started thinking. 

In the late nineties, the anti-glo–  the big sort of campaigning sort of movement sort of movement of movements, really it was happening in lots of places, was the anti-globalization protests, which had been happening in the majority world for a while and were starting to sort of make their way into the places of power. There was, you know, there were great big protests outside the World Trade Organization in Seattle, there were anti-globalization protests in London, they were happening in big cities. And I was out on these marches and I was trying to report on them as well. And I was feeling really torn because I was seeing things on early sort of web chats about things that were being planned. And I was feeling really conflicted. I was starting to realize, I didn't just want to report on things. I also wanted to be part of them. I didn't really think that organizing big marches was going to be my thing, but I was really starting to feel this pull towards things that I was never going to be able to get into a Murdoch newspaper. And that's when I realized that I could perhaps take those skills to professional campaign groups. And it was practical. Obviously I wanted to earn a living as well. And there might be a way of bringing the two things together. I grew up in an environment where my parents were quite sort of conservative – small C and voting big C – those sort of organizations weren't in my realm. I didn't know they existed. And actually they were changing around that time. It was in the nineties that they were really becoming solidified protests that had taken place in quite scrappy ways before that was starting to kind of coalesce into these bigger funded organizations. What I was noticing was that they were structured, most of them, around research and investigation functions, so people who dug stuff up; and then communications functions; and campaign functions, which is the people who took those findings and those reports, and then went out to whatever community or movement or, or whatever it was – the people they had available to them, their supporters – to get them to do stuff. And so when it works and you can do that smoothly and you can find the stuff and communicate it well, and then go out there and be the ones that are speaking about it, there was a sort of flow to that process that at the time it felt very, very satisfying.

I went and lived in Sierra Leone for a while in the aftermath of the civil war. And I was doing a mixture of experimenting with whether I wanted to be a traditional aid worker, I suppose. I was working for a child protection organization, supporting children who'd been separated from their families during the conflict. But I was also doing some research for some of the campaigns I'd been working on back in London that were about trying to get controls on the arms trade. I wanted to be useful. I wanted to help. But it was also about me. It was also about me feeling good, being the one who could make that happen. You know, that feeling of righteousness, it's a very, very big motor for campaigning and activism of all kinds. And it's not obvious that a lot of campaigning would take place without it and yet it is also such a problem. I was absolutely on my high horse. And I'm talking in the past tense because I'm speaking about that particular bit of work fifteen years ago, but it's the same now in other campaigning environments. It's very hard to do campaigning without getting on your high horse, without seeing the problem only in the other side. Because that observation of the problem is what sort of inspires us to say, ‘Right, yes, we're going to do something. Look! Let's go and get those bastards’.

Now, some things have changed since then. You know, this was before social media, you know, it's an epochal communications revolution. We haven't had anything this big, as a revolution in communications, for five hundred years, and we haven't begun to see it fully playing out yet. So that was right at the tail end of a world in which there probably was a role for the sort of intermediate – the journalist and investigator as intermediary. But I think the changed media and particularly social media landscape, and smartphones, and everybody having them, has just upended those dynamics so completely. Or it’s upended the possibility of what can happen and who can speak for themselves, so profoundly that I think all of these roles – of investigator and journalist – are in question. And all of that is alongside the fact that one of the negative sides of this revolution is that anyone can say anything. And so I'm not saying there's no role for the trained journalist as interpreter and that sort of editorial and the choice that you can have about what makes it through is such a power. So it raises questions about that. And it raises questions about the sort of the psychology of our own saviour and status needs.

I was working at Global Witness, a campaigning organization that investigates the links between natural resources and conflict and corruption. And I was running a campaign looking at the role of the financial sector. So banks, but also law firms, offshore tax havens, and the role they were playing in corrupt natural resource deals, in fueling corruption, by the banks accepting stolen dictators’ loot money that had been stolen by corrupt – it's funny talking about corrupt politicians now, because it's very obvious we've got our own – but politicians who were, you know, chopping large amounts of national budgets. This is oil revenues being paid directly into private accounts, that kind of thing. And the banks were completely facilitating that, because you cannot keep these amounts of money under the mattress. They used to say, you know, you need a bank.

So I was putting together these case studies and I published a report that was full of case studies of major banks – HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland – but then we'd sort of publish these reports. I say that just in one sentence – it took two years and much hair-pulling and many arguments with the libel lawyer to be able to say this stuff without ending up in court. Where we can say very clearly: these banks are fueling corruption and this is how. And then I talked my way into a meeting at the OECD, which is like the rich countries’ club that sets trade and sort of finance rules. And they set the sort of template for the anti-money laundering laws that ought to prevent all this happening. And so there I am in this big basement negotiating room in OECD headquarters in Paris. And there's a huge negotiating table, you know, tables all along one side in a big square, about fifteen people on each side. And I'm on one side near the Chair. I lobbied for two years to get into this room. And they're doing a sort of go-round to say who everyone is. And it's like, oh, I'm so-and-so I'm with my HSBC. I'm so-and-so, I'm from Barclays. I'm so-and-so, I'm from the Society of Offshore Lawyers, or whatever it is. 

This room was the heart of darkness, from the perspective of the work I'd been doing for several years. It was like, oh my God, they're all here. All these institutions and organizations that I feel are directly responsible for this stuff. And I've been saying for several years, oh my goodness, these are the bastards we must get. And here I am in the room with them. And it comes around to me, and the Chair knew, the Chair was a government bureaucrat. And I leant forward and switched on my little microphone and said, ‘Hello, I'm Anthea Lawson. I'm from Global Witness. And I investigate the role of you, basically, in causing corruption and poverty and unnecessary death in the countries where you're operating’. Because that's what this is, they’re wanting to keep it on the sort of technical terms of corruption and whatever that might mean in the terms of the anti-money laundering laws. And I insisted throughout this meeting of making clear what corruption actually meant. It's mothers dying in childbirth and children dying for lack of clean water.

The whole room kind of went woo, like who the fuck let her in? I love that. I absolutely loved it. I love being a huge pain in the ass for those people. It's like, that's where that feeling is. I like the power of it. Now, again, I sort of reflected on this. I had really limited power. I had unbelievably limited power, but that was the amount that I'd managed to get in that situation. So there's a righteousness in it, and I think an underlying sort of feeling of doing something useful, which is hard to distinguish from saviorism, really. Now in a sane world, the people directly affected, the citizens of countries directly affected by what banks are doing, should be in that room. It shouldn't be me.

You know, everyone who works in professional campaigning organizations recognizes that the turnover is high. Campaigning fuels investigation, attracts passionate people, who really care. They really give a shit, they hurl themselves into it and then they burn out. And some people do that cyclically, then step back and go a bit quieter for a bit, and then they come back at it. And some people just go off and do other stuff, cause they can't do it. And we could just say, yeah, that's how it is. Also though, I think that by questioning some of what we are bringing of ourselves to the process, I think we can change how we relate to it. Because I think the process is not going to change. We are always going to be up against something absolutely huge. And some people at some moments are very energized by that. I used to have people saying to me, but how can you even begin to take that on. It just feels so exhausting. And when I was in the thick of doing those jobs, I was like, it's fine. It's the only way to live. It's the only way – I can't imagine living otherwise. I'm now doing it in a part-time way. I'm doing more of my campaigning in my spare time because I'm doing more writing with my working time. And I can see a bit more how people were saying that, because when you're not right in the thick of it, it does look absolutely enormous. 

So look, here it is, there's this enormous sort of wall we're throwing ourselves at and let's not sort of get into describing what we're going to call that system, whether it's neoliberalism or extractive capitalism or patriarchy. I think the thing that we can change is how we see ourselves in relation to it. If we think that it's us who are going to fix it, if we are attached to doing that ourselves, then I think we're going to be more likely to burn out. In all these ways we're going to be bringing a sort of unconscious load – well, it’s baggage really, isn't it, a term that we will understand it by – we're going to be bringing all that to it. And then in the inevitable moment when it's not going well, or we've been knocked back, yet again, it's a bit devastating. Because it's not just that we haven't achieved this particular thing we were trying to achieve in that moment – get so-and-so minister to meet us or listen to us or change this law or whatever – which is bad enough itself because this stuff matters, it’s that all this kind of subterranean haul of stuff we're bringing with us hasn't been met as well. 

And some of the most liberating conversations I had with longstanding activists – I mean, people who've been managing to do it for decades – were the ones where I realized that the people who managed to really keep going are doing their campaigning as a practice and not so much as a goal. And of course to say, this is not saying we shouldn't have goals. I get very frustrated when I see campaigning that's being done without clearly thinking through, well, who is it we're trying to target? You can waste your time so very easily by not sufficiently targeting things, by not getting your message clear, by not being clear, about what you think, what you want to do. And yet at the same time as needing that clarity, there's a quality of attachment to our goal that I think too much of that – of attaching ourselves and our sense of ourselves to that goal – makes the burnout much more likely. I'm now attempting to do the things that I'm doing with that sense of practice. And it's hard. I'm in my mid forties and I've spent my entire life orienting myself, towards the successful achievement of targets. And when I say orienting myself, I don't just mean trying to get the targets. I mean my very being, that has been very important.

So I worked on the campaign for an arms trade treaty, which was a big campaign run by Amnesty and Oxfam to, uh . .  huh! We won the treaty and its limitations are clear because the UK is still selling weapons to,  just for example, which are being used against civilians in Yemen. But the idea was to prevent sales of weapons by governments to other governments, who would them against civilians. You know, there were academics who were looking, they were measuring gun flows across borders. They were looking at the market, the dynamics of the market. There were people who appeared on the surface. And I really think I was quite judgmental at the time. A lot of us were. To be motivated by the numbers and by the data. And sometimes to be quite interested in the weapons system, really sort of quite motivated by sort of knowing all of the differences in specifications between these different systems. I was horrified by all of these things. I couldn't bear thinking about what these weapons did. I found it very hard doing this work. In the end I had to step away because my dreams were so bad. 

And so I would sometimes notice there was a sort of judgment going, on of the people who seemed to be able to carefully delineate all of the weapons’ specifications or, for academic purposes, do research on just the numbers, the absolute numbers. And then sometimes the academics would be a bit sort of twitchy about the way that we were using some of their statistics in our press releases, because we would take their case. And I understand it now – you know we would take their very carefully thought through and nuanced findings and bang them straight in what becomes a headline. And you know, what happens in the news process – it just gets simplified and simplified and simplified. And we were just part of that process. And they would raise questions about that. And I would be on this very sort of driven target-focused,  we need X number of countries to agree, this particular thing by this date, before this meeting, when the treaty is going to get discussed at the United Nations, whatever it was. So we need X number of newspaper headlines in those countries that we can then put in front of them. We were really sort of working back from the target. So of course we need a number, and it was easy sometimes to sort of observe that desire to get the data  just on its own account, without a campaigning edge, almost as a sort of some kind of moral lack, you know, which is nonsense really. I think all of these people who are doing it, were obviously driven to do it by the same underlying set of goals of understanding that the world needed changing. It's just, there were those of us who were in different places, in the sort of ecology of the system that was trying to confront it. 

I'm a lot less judgmental of that now, perhaps rather more judgmental of how judgmental I was sometimes being at the time. I thought that if people weren't as angry as me, they obviously cared less. And I think anger at some of these issues does run through. There's a sort of seam of it in investigation. And I don't think that's ever going to change. I think the one thing that can change is that we can become more aware of it, and a bit kinder to each other about where we're coming from. We make enormous assumptions about how what is obvious to us is going to land with other people. One of those assumptions is that people will want to act on it in the same way that we do. Another is that they will feel the same anger that we do and that it won't instead make them turn away, because it's too uncomfortable.

I'd been working on banks for a few years and I'd been taken on to try and look at the role of banks in fueling corruption. There was already an overarching legal regime that was supposed to control how banks deal with ‘dirty money’, to use the umbrella term. But it wasn't working. So there were laws in place, but they weren't working. And so that's always a frustrating kind of campaign, because then you find yourself arguing for ‘well, you got to tighten up the law’, you find yourself arguing for these sort of carceral solutions, you know, ‘lock up all the bankers’. You know, it's a bit tricky because really what's behind it is the underlying profit motive above all else. That's what's causing the problems. But there was another aspect actually that was just so – in policy terms, it was being overlooked. 

The Tax Justice Network had been talking about it. Nobody else was talking about it. And this was this question of companies being able to incorporate and hide who their real owners were. So you could incorporate a company in Britain and say, the owner of the company is another company, that's incorporated in the British Virgin islands. That's it, nobody can find out who's behind it. You can do anything with that. You can be a dodgy landlord. You can commit any number of crimes, across borders, and it will be very, very hard to be held to account. And so the story that my colleague was working on, that we sort of decided to sort of make a sort of play of this and really show it, was about capital flight out of Kyrgyzstan when there'd been a change of regime.

I'm not really, I'm not a data nerd, but here we had it, when you just sort of peer in, you open Pandora's box. And we found addresses in London where thousands of companies were being registered. Books have now been written about this. It's now a big thing, but at the time – this was 2010, 2011 – we were probably doing the research on this. And it wasn't really being talked about. And I remember going to the British Library to use one of the databases they had there and seeing how many companies were being incorporated. There were thousands of companies incorporated in each of these things. And it takes both a kind of handle on the data, but also a kind of journalistic storytellers’ eye to see the implication of that. It was like a gateway into this absolute world of horror, of what was possible in the incorporation of offshore companies. And so that report itself, I think it did have some impact in some unexpected little places, that you can't sort of paint as the big picture of it. But what it did was sort of opened us up and made it clear that we were going to launch a big campaign. 

It’s one of those little moments where, you know, a slice of story well-told opens up a real Pandora's box. You know, we then were able to use this. We were using this data. I remember sitting out on the roof terrace in that office. I remember having conversations with an editor at the Economist. And I remember seeing his face when he got it, when he got what we were saying. And he was like, ‘Oh! Right, okay’. And then they did an editorial and then Cameron's government picked it up and then championed this, this change. And it was this thing, it  was the granular detail that showed the structures that pervaded the whole system and made it absolutely rotten to the core. And so it's that lovely combination of seeing the detail and then being able to do – it's not just storytelling, it's writing up the story, but it's also the communicating around it. It's being able to put that into a form of words that shows its relevance and shows how that is then being used to facilitate the drugs, trade and corruption and all the kind of offshore profit shifting.s And any number of other social ills. That's really satisfying.

I feel sort of mixed being asked to talk about it now, because it's no longer my full-time job. When it was my full-time job, I was fully identified with it. And it felt like absolutely the best use of my skills and what I can bring to the world, because I like and can do both the finding stuff out and the communication of it in a way that lands with people. Part of me misses doing it full time, actually. And I sometimes wonder if perhaps I'd like to go back to it, but I feel like I'm motivated at the moment by a different kind of investigation. I suppose I am still an investigator in some ways. And what I'm investigating at the moment is not the, the practical manifestations of the system in the arms trade or dodgy natural resources deals, or tax havens, what I'm investigating now is the sort of deep links between our inner lives, our souls and our psychology and how that manifests in the world that we're creating together. My sort of way of being in the world. And the work that I want to do is always going to be investigation of a kind, because asking questions is kind of how I'm built.  


The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech. 

Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.

Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.

Music by Wael Eskandar.

Additional music is Illumination and Murmuration (Pon IX) by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons non-commercial 4.0 Attribution licence.

Audio by nemonetworkmedia used under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence, Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.

Illustration by Ann Kiernan

This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.