Writer-Detective Greg Palast Really Hates the Rich
He wants to kill them, but he can't, so he exposes them.
Greg Palast, investigative journalist. Photo via
Greg Palast is one of the few journalists worth giving a fuck about. This is because he does that rare thing of discovering new information rather than simply regurgitating it.
You may not have heard of him, but you have probably heard of his work. When you hear your liberal American friend who was embarrassed of his country before Obama made it perfect again say that “Bush stole the election”, Palast is the man who proved it.
The stories he digs up are so mind-blowing that a lot of them sound like wild conspiracy theories. What separates him from some nutbar spouting gibberish about the New World Order is that he backs himself up with filing cabinets so heavy with confidential documents they could probably be used to anchor one of the luxury yachts of the “high finance carnivores” that he pursues.
His latest book, Vultures’ Picnic, stinks. Each page reeks. I mean that as a compliment. He digs up enough shit on corporate bastards robbing the poor and raping Mother Earth to suffocate a marine ecosystem. In Palast’s own words: “I chase different turds around the planet, but it’s all the same shit.”
Given that reading his stuff has taught me more about how the world really works than if I had read a newspaper every day for a month, and has been twice as entertaining, I thought I would call him up for a chat.
VICE: Hi Greg, are you ready for a chat?
Greg Palast: Why not?
So your book Vultures' Picnic – how would you sum up what it’s about?
It’s about fucking creepy motherfucking greedy bastards who want us to die so that they can eat us. And that’s why they’re vultures. That’s the polite way of putting it. It’s also about a reporter – I’m just some average schmuck who says “Fuck these guys, I’m going after them and I’m gonna rip their fuckin’ hearts out,” because I grew up poor and I’m filled with resentment. I’m not a Marxist, I just hate rich people. I want to kill them but I can’t so I expose them, which is to them, even worse I think, because if they’re dead they get statues and eulogies.
Having read it and some of your previous work I get the impression that it doesn’t make any difference, though. John Pilger described some of the information you uncovered as “a hand grenade”, but it never brings down governments.
It should bring down governments, but Pilger is an optimist. I don’t do this because I think it’s going to make a difference. I do this because it’s my personal pathology. I read the bullshit papers, I watch the American idiot box and this is my way of screaming, punching the wall, except that I do it through a typewriter. In fact, one of the problems is that I now have inflamed tendons in my hands because I pound percussively. I smash keyboards. I try to get my anger out that way rather than drinking, which isn’t always successful. I don’t know if it’s going to make any fucking difference. The only thing you could say is that we’ve had some successful movements – whether it’s the environmental movement, the women’s movement… It’s been going on forever and the fight goes on forever. So you know, shit happens.
So is there a lot of work in finding out this stuff? Because in your book you often talk of explosive documents “landing” on your desk, which seems hard to believe because a lot of journalists would kill for the information you uncover.
The idea that it just “arrives” – obviously I’m doing that to protect people on the inside. It’s hard to get across just how much time is spent going through papers and calculations.
But why don’t other journalists get the information that you do?
Why aren’t these stories covered? A lot of it is lazy fuck-ism. It’s a lot of work. Stories do land on people's desks and they ignore them. It’s not always the journalists – it’s the producers and the editors who, especially in the US, just don’t want to hear it. Some things come to me because once I develop a reputation as someone who will review and act on inside stuff, people come to me. Also, I have an investigative fund that allows you to spend months and months on an investigation. What paper can afford to do that?
How do you approach an investigation?
I start out an investigation thinking, 'How the fuck would I pull off this scheme?' In a way, you’re writing a novel in your head about how these crimes are committed. When there’s motive and opportunity, you’re going to get it. So I have a very different approach to other journalists. It’s not passive – I don’t wait for shit to happen.
So you set out to get people?
No, I set out to get the info, and I’m often wrong.
In your book you’re exposing "vultures". This is a reference to "vulture funds". Can you sum up how one of those works?
Supposedly they go and buy up debt from nations, corporations and people at a fragment of the cost and then sue to get the full amount. It’s people buying uncollectable debt and then trying to collect it. That’s the not pretty, but nice and legal story. But that’s not how it works.
And the ugly, nasty, illegal story?
Well, for example, the Congo owed a debt of around $25m to Bosnia. Paul "the Vulture" Singer made a $3m payment to the Prime Minister of Bosnia and his crew who illegally gave a man we’ll call "Goldfinger" the right to collect the debt. Congo already agreed to pay off 100 percent of the debt – or close to it – in return for Bosnia’s reopening of a factory to send power pylons to the Congo, which are desperately needed. So these two war-torn nations cut a deal to help each other’s industries – making pylons was Bosnia’s main industry. What they didn’t know was that the Prime Minister had sold off the debt. The debt was about $25m and the vultures demanded over $100m. So the deal was off. The pylon factories remain closed and there’s a depression in Bosnia. There are no pylons in the Congo, which it needs for water pumps to prevent the cholera epidemic.
The Congo also had an $80m shipment of cobalt to be used by Nokia. These vultures seized that money through a law suit in the Isle of Jersey. So they’re getting $80m and that’s not enough for them. They’re going after more.
They’re making the banks that everyone’s so keen to bash recently sound like Aung Sung Suu Kyi or something.
Well, Goldman Sachs, for instance, is a giant sucker-squid. It’s a parasite. To have your blood sucked you have to be alive. Vultures feast when you die. It’s an important distinction. Goldman needs the system to stay alive. The big established banks know that you have to leave a little bit for the birds to peck at. Someone has got to create value. Even the workers in the salt mines have to eat something!
And you’ve got another book coming out, Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, which is about how these people are funding the US election, right?
Yes. I was investigating these scumbag vultures, and suddenly they decided they had to back Romney. The big banks, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, etc, are funding Obama.
So the US election is vultures vs. parasites?
Yes, exactly. Republican and Democrat is the BS public label. It’s meaningless.
You also investigated that massive oil rig blow out in the Gulf of Mexico, AKA the Deepwater Horizon explosion, AKA the greatest environmental disaster in US history. What did you find?
This is important: The Deepwater Horizon explosion was not an accident, it was a homicide. And I use that term with great caution. I work with a lawyer and under US law this was negligent homicide. A similar explosion had already happened in the Caspian sea. I had to go to Baku in Azerbaijan to confirm this. They covered it up, and for a good reason. One: Offshore drilling and deepwater drilling is inherently dangerous. Two: They’re saving millions of dollars using a cheap-ass cement process. BP knew that this was utterly dangerous and they did it anyway.
It’s not pre-meditated murder but they knew that they were basically rolling the dice on people's lives. For that, they should be in jail.
But they’re not, and you ended up in jail in Azerbaijan, right?
Not in jail. I ended up under arrest. The number two man in the Azerbaijani security ministry showed up. His purpose was to get the story killed off, not to put me in prison. He understood very well that the last thing you wanted was a reporter from Channel 4’s Dispatches in some fuckin’ dungeon in Azerbaijan. That would make things ten times worse. So he wanted to get our film and scare the shit out of our witnesses, and he did a pretty fucking effective job too.
Military police chief in Azerbaijan, taken by Greg with his secret pen camera while he was under arrest.
Sounds pretty scary.
People say, “Oh, you’re so heroic and brave!” Bullshit. My adventures are more Austin Powers than real danger. I’m a coward. I try and stay out of trouble in every way. It’s the sources who put their shit on the line, man. They’re amazing people.
Have you got any examples of how your sources put their arses on the line?
Two of our witnesses from the blow-out in the Caspian have disappeared – we have no idea what happened to them and I don’t think it’s good. The third got out of the country. What happened to me was just fun and games. Our US witness is Bradley Manning, who released the Wikileaks cables. He is in one of Obama’s dungeons. So can we talk about the police state of Azerbaijan without talking about the treatment of Bradley Manning? He’s kept in solitary confinement in his underpants so that he doesn’t kill himself – he’s not going to kill himself. He knows he’s a hero.
Real danger or no, your book is written kind of like a thriller. Is there a conscious effort to be more engaging than most of the media in your writing style?
Well, there’s a conscious effort not to bore the fuck out of people. I hate most writing. There’s a confusion of solemn and serious. I only want to write books that I would want to read, and make TV and films that I would watch.
When Channel 4 broadcast my BP investigation I couldn’t keep my fuckin’ eyes open. I thought it was boring. I told that to the network. I said I’m never doing this again if this is what happens to my shit. They didn’t even have me inside the whale! I basically laid out the information that BP was killing people for money and was involved in police states and coup d’etats. It wasn’t Channel 4 that backed down, it was Jamie Oliver’s production company. He’s a total pussy. No balls, no style, no whale.
Wait. Whale? What?
I did an interview literally inside the stomach, like Jonah! It was the carcass, inside these bones. You have to understand that this thing is huge. It’s not the size of a house, it’s the size of a building. Etok was trying to make a point to me – this is their life. Without the whales they’re just guys cleaning toilets on some oil rig.
Oh, right, is this when you’re investigating Shell drilling for oil in the arctic, and how it’s screwing over Etok’s people – the Inupiat – who live there?
Mainly Shell, with BP and Exxon. As I was writing the last words of the book, Obama authorised drilling right there where I was in Kaktovik. If you ever have a chance to eat whale meat, don’t. It’s like… bleugh.
Greg interviewing Etok “inside” the belly of a whale, which is not quite as impressive as he made out, but is still pretty cool.
Unfortunately, people make stuff so fucking self-serious. Like, “This is a serious topic so you can’t laugh and you can’t get laid and you can’t get drunk.” If you’re a journalist and you’re not getting laid and laughing and drinking then you’re probably a fucking lousy journalist. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a necessary part of the job. And if you don’t doubt yourself and get depressed and miserable, then you’re in the wrong business.
I do at least some of those things. Mainly the getting depressed bit. Anyway, speaking of getting laid, your investigations into New Labour’s corruption – "lobbygate" – got you a reputation as a sex-pest, didn’t it?
I ended up being smeared as a sex maniac! I didn’t even get wet, as they say [laughs]. I’m laughing now, it was pretty serious at the time. I was investigating corporate influence in New Labour. Companies like Enron – big power operators. They had to get me because I was investigating them.
The "SEX SCANDAL ROCKS LABOUR CONFERENCE" Mirror front page.
So what happened?
When I was at these Labour Party conferences I had never seen such ugly people in my life, you know what I mean? Morally, physically, whatever – not very pretty. And suddenly this fucking knock-out, sex-on-a-stick, comes running over to me and says: “How do I get in with those people? I’d like to start a political career,” because she had seen me come out of an elevator with John Prescott and Blair and their whole crew following. I said, “Let’s dance and talk about it.” And while she had her hands in my pockets, measuring the jewellery, I said, “Look, you’ve got the two things that New Labour desperately needs: black skin and a vagina. That makes you a two-fer. So go up to Mandelson and say, 'Here I am.'" So she did. What shocked me was that they put her right to the top without giving her any experience. She didn’t know shit from Shinola.
The first thing she didn’t understand is that after the "lobbygate" investigation, I was the enemy number one of New Labour, but she still wanted to get laid. So she contacted me and I said I’d take her to the New Statesman dinner.
When New Labour found out, they said: “You ain’t going nowhere with Greg Palast. You’re leaving him a key at the desk and tell him to go up into your room.” The original plan, by the way, was not to set me up for a sex scandal, but to set me up as going into her room trying to get information on Mandelson. But when they caught me there with my pants down – that’s when they came up with the sex scandal: “SEX SCANDAL ROCKS LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE”.
Another Mirror front page smearing Palast. Then Mirror editor Piers Morgan was a BFF of New Labour, so the paper didn’t take too kindly to Palast’s exposés of Labour corruption.
How do you feel now with these people who smeared you giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry?
You know, Alastair Campbell is a lying scumbag. They’re asking, “Does Murdoch have influence?” I have the goddamn audio tapes – and Leveson has never asked for them – in which the lobbyists for Murdoch are giving me the details of the deals they’ve done with New Labour.
The idea that it was the Tories that let Murdoch off the hook on competition rules is bullshit. The Tories are amateur. You don’t have to buy the Tories, they’re already bought! It was New Labour and I have the tapes. They couldn’t wait. They're out there with their miniskirts, swinging their little purses saying “We’re available, what do you want?”
Private Eye’s take on that Mirror front page.
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