Behind the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers are being described as the biggest collection of documents ever to be leaked and the teamwork required to get the stories out has been equally unprecedented; 376 journalists belonging to 109 news organisations in 76 countries sifted through thousands of documents in a virtual newsroom run by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The Listening Post sat down with investigative journalist and ICIJ Director, Gerard Ryle, to talk about the global reach of the story and the journalistic collaboration behind it.

The Listening Post: There have been some explosive revelations in the Panama Papers which has been described as the biggest data leak in history. Why this story? Why do news consumers around the world need to pay attention to what is being reported?

Watch: Panama Papers: Have the media censored the story?

Gerard Ryle: It’s important because of the sheer scale of what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing here is almost 40 years of records of a law firm in Panama called Mossack Fonseca and they set up offshore accounts for clients and they’re one of the biggest five in the world of doing that.

And so, what’s interesting about this is that the records go up to December 2015 so you know it’s not historic. It’s almost in real time and you’re able to look at this like parallel universe that people have always been sort of interested in looking at. It’s always been shrouded in secrecy so we’re now blowing away the secrets.

The Listening Post: The Panama Papers has also been described as the largest cross-border media collaboration ever attempted. The ICIJ has been involved in a number of these collaborations already. What are the lessons that you have learned along the way?

Ryle: The first lesson we learned is that we need to have people who are collaborative working on these projects. 

There’s no point in coming here as a traditional investigative reporter. I would have said that most of my career was spent that way where you, you keep your secrets to yourself, you don’t share with your colleagues. You’ve really got to come with a really open mind.

Marina Walker, deputy director, always talks about this radical sharing issue and that everything you’re seeing you’ve got to share with your colleagues. And it’s hard at first, because it goes against your instincts, but we’ve shown now that it does work and in some cases it actually works spectacularly well.

The Listening Post: A special, virtual newsroom was built to allow all the journalists involved in this project to communicate with each other and they were encouraged to tell everyone what they were doing. Are these tools the answer to the reduced capacity of the media in a time when newsrooms are shrinking, but the institutions that journalists are meant to hold accountable are growing in size, power and secrecy?

Ryle: I think we’re in the era of a number of different things. We’re in an era of global information and also issues are very global. So I think we’re lucky in that we’re in that era at the moment. We can do this. We’re also in an era of technology that allows us to do this on a shoestring because we’re a small non-profit. But we can communicate cheaply and we can also usetechnology to build databases.

So you have 11.5 million documents, you need to be able to, to search them easily and very, very quickly for journalists. But you also need to be able to pipe all of the documents down the Internet into newsrooms because journalists aren’t satisfied with you giving them the documents, they want to see everything that there is to see from the documents. And therefore you need to make everything open from the beginning.

So, I guess technology’s allowing us to do this in a way that would never have been thought possible five or ten years ago.

The Listening Post: Given the number of news organisations, the number of journalists involved, were you not worried that this story would break prematurely?

Ryle: Of course you’re always worried that someone’s going to break the embargo but I think we entered into this all trusting each other and I’ve got a great trust in journalists. If they think they’ve got a great story, it’s in their own self interest not to go ahead and publish something before anyone else. I mean they realise from previous collaborations we have done that by going together you get a much better result in the end.

You can actually create a firestorm that can go round the world. And because we’ve had people working with us in this way before, they were able to educate more and more journalists who came along and joined this, this particular project.

The Listening Post: Many of the media outlets in this partnership, particularly in the West, are being criticised for disproportionate focus on Russia, on Putin, whilst giving short shrift to other revelations in the leaks. Why did the Putin angle get so much coverage in the first splash?

Ryle: We think the reason the reason that Russia got so much attention initially was, apart from the fact that I think there’s actually a really good story to be told about Russia, is that when we put questions to the Kremlin about a week before publication, instead of answering the questions and giving us the answers like everyone else, they actually called a press conference andattacked us individually.

I think at that point Putin and the Russians thought it was just about them. Like most egotistical leaders they think it’s all about them, whereas in fact we knew all along that it wasn’t, it was actually about people from almost 200 different countries and we had presidents and prime ministers and kings all over the world that we were about to I guess make revelations about.

The Listening Post: We’re seeing Russia, the UK, Ukraine, now Iceland, among others being implicated, but very little on the US. Why do you think that is?

Ryle: Well we are seeing a lot of US names come out because we did partner with the McClatchy Group here in the US and they are the ones responsible for reporting on the US names.

But the fact is with these kind of documents, you can only report on what the documents say and if there are no elected officials from the US then you can’t make them up suddenly and startreporting on that. You’ve got to, as journalists, look at the documents, see what’s of public interest and then report on that.

It just so happens that there weren’t any elected officials and believe me, we looked. I mean we typed in Donald Trump, we typed in Hillary Clinton, we just didn’t find those names so therefore we couldn’t report on them. 

The Listening Post: Some argue that we cannot expect a genuine expose of Western capitalism by the Western media because those news organisations are compromised by their ownership. The initial reporting focused largely on political figures as opposed to corporate ones. Surely a big part of this story is about corporate tax evasion, not just avoidance, so why aren’t we seeing more big corporate names?

Ryle: Yes, it’s a good point. I think what we saw in the data, and we have reported this, we saw that about 350 international banks were the clients that Mossack Fonseca the law firm that we had the documents on, we reported that out.

I think what we’re seeing here though is that when we were initially looking at this, we wanted to focus on public officials because we didn’t want anyone to think that what we were doing wasn’t in the public interest. And remember this was an anonymous leak so we had to take, we had to be even more cautious about this than we would if we knew where the material was coming from. 

So we took a deliberate choice very early on that we would look at public figures. And because we’ve so many public figures, it wasn’t that hard for us to make that choice. And we have in the past reported on corporate tax avoidance. In fact our organisation has probably led to more change in that area than any other news organisation in the world. You know we were the ones that reported about Luxembourg being a big tax haven, that has led to corporate crack-down all over Europe and all over the world against big corporations. They are in this data. They do use the offshore world and we weren’t going light on any of them we were just basically reporting what we thought was of genuine, public interest and what was new. Something we hadn’t reported before.

The Listening Post: This is obviously a mega-leak with the number of stories yet to come. Have you and your media partners had any media-related findings and is there anything to come in the Panama Papers that is going to tell us about the media and the companies that own them?

Ryle: Yes, we found media owners in the data and we have reported that out. In fact some of the media partners that we took on board, we found their owners in the data.

So in those cases what we did, once we realised that, we actually went to other media in that country which we normally wouldn’t do. We’d only have one or two, you know one TV station, one radio station, one newspaper in an ideal situation, but in some countries we actually went outside that. For instance, in Argentina we‘ve given rival news organisations access to the data because we found both the current president of Argentina in there and the recent past president in there and we know that the media in Argentina is divided on who they support.

The Listening Post: The ICIJ’s funding by corporations like the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment and Kellogg and the Rockefellers have been questioned by some. What would you say to those that argue that your funding may be jeopardising the ICIJ’s impartiality during this investigation? 

Ryle: The only organisation you mentioned there, The Ford Foundation, is the only one who has given to specifically to ICIJ. The other money that you’re talking about, the other foundations do support our parent organisation, not the ICIJ.

Most of the funding for ICIJ actually comes from, from England and from Holland and from a private donor in Australia. So we’re very much a shoestring operationWe rely on donations. We only take money – and this is a very deliberate choice that I made when I took over as director four and a half years ago – we do not take money from anyone who tells us what to do. And in fact we have rejected money when we’ve been asked to basically report on a specific area.

We just don’t take money for those areas. We want to be open and free to basically report on, on what we want to report on. And also our partners, our media partners, like the BBC have got standards that wouldn’t allow them to work with us if we were in some way an advocacy group or basically being paid to report in a certain area.

The Listening Post: You have said that you are not WikiLeaks and that you are trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly. This was in reference to your refusal to release the full data set like WikiLeaks did in the past. Why do you consider this to be more responsible journalism? Is there not significant public interest in these documents being disclosed.

Ryle: Well, I think we’re just trying to our niche. We’re journalists and we want to do what journalists do, which is basically to apply journalistic ethics and journalistic practice to these documents. I’m not criticising WikiLeaks for what they do. They do a different thing.

But we want to reclaim journalism and basically we want to do it in this way. We want to publish things that we think are in public interest using I guess the names of journalistsIf we were to release 11.5 million documents, most people would fall asleep.

They actually want you to pick through it and find the interesting things and report on them so they don’t have to do the work. Most of what we do is really, really tedious. You know, day after day after day going in there, looking through documents and then going outside the documents to actually put context around what you’re seeing and acting responsibly as journalists so I make no apology for that. I think we are journalists and we’re doing journalism. We’re not, we’re not just publishing everything we see as we get them.

The Listening Post: So far, only a small fraction of the files have been released. Do you see any issue with the news organisations in this collaboration determining what is and what is not and who is and who is not newsworthy?

Ryle: No. Part of our model is that we, we go to each media partner and ask them to join the collaboration but we don’t tell them what to report and we don’t have any editorial control over their product. We do that for two reasons: first of all, we’re not, we don’t want to be responsible for their end product, we don’t want to be sued in 50 different countries.

But also a Brazilian reporter will tell you what’s important to Brazilians. A Panamanian reporter will tell you what’s important in Panama and so forth and so on. The best person to have looking at US names is somebody from the US who can actually identify who might be important. So you’re not just publishing details on people who are private individuals or someone who may be using a tax haven, God forbid, for actually, you know for good reasons. I don’t think there are very many good reasons, by the way, to use tax havens but there are some legitimate reasons.

The Listening Post: So would you say this is the future of this type of collaboration when stories are global?

Ryle: I think with a certain type of story, this, this works very well. It’s not going to work very well for every type of story. If we have data for instance that only pertains to the US, it’s not going to work, clearly. Because you’re not going to get a French journalist interested in New York real estate for instance.

But if you’ve got a certain type of story and, as I say, a lot of stories these days are global and you need to you know basically cross borders to get to the bottom of things, then this is an easy, it’s a cheap method, it’s a, it’s a good method if you trust people and if you get the right kind of people on board. You also learn an awful lot from it.

I spent most of my life as an investigative reporter. I actually thought I was quite good at it until I started doing this job then I realised how many brilliant reporters there are and different ways of thinking. Different countries have different ways of looking at something and you learn from just that different, you know, set of eyes on documents or a method. Or they might have a database you have never heard of, so your, your skill levels are going up all the time. You also feel a little bit inadequate because you realise how little you really knew.

Source: Al Jazeera