It is the biggest scoop in years: 11.5 million leaked documents disclosing the complex, murky world of global tax evasion, fraud, money laundering and even drug trafficking.
The documents, amounting to 2.6 terabytes of data, were initially leaked to the Suddeutsche Zeitung in 2015 — but the newspaper, given the scale of documentation, sought the help of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The documents were leaked from Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm, which deals with the finances of politicians, celebrities, millionaires and billionaires, helping them to avoid taxes and other legal restrictions, and recycle money.
Already, the leaks have claimed their first political scalp, as the Prime Minister of Iceland has been forced to resign after it was revealed that he had been among those who used offshore tax havens to avoid taxes, as the Guardian reports.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has also been put into some difficulties as it was revealed that his father had invested money in offshore funds. Cameron initially attempted to deny that he had personally profited from this, only to later admit that he had.
This, after years of Cameron carefully detoxing the Conservative brand, has threatened to poison it again. Conservative mayor of London Boris Johnson squirmed when asked about offshore tax avoidance, refusing to condemn the practice as the Independent reports.
Dictatorships like the Syrian regime have also been found to be using the tax havens to evade sanctions — as Al Jazeera put it, “the Seychelles saved” the Syrian regime.
This, it seems, is only just scratching the surface. The leaked documents, in their millions, amount to an indictment of the global rich, exposing the extraordinary lengths and breadths they go to in order to protect their wealth and cover their crimes.
Or rather, they would, if we had a different media.
For the first thing that the journalists involved with this scoop did was to set themselves some fairly stringent limits.
Gerald Ryle, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is quoted in the popular technology website, Wired, as saying that:
“the media organizations have no plans to release the full dataset, WikiLeaks-style”, which he argues would expose the sensitive information of innocent private individuals along with the public figures on which the group’s reporting has focused. “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.”
This gratuitous swipe at an organisation whose leaks of information included major exposes of US power, war crimes, torture, civilian casualties, and official lies, is odd coming from a group whose major yield from 11.5 million documents is to inculpate the Prime Minister of Iceland.
The Guardian also insisted that “much of the leaked material will remain private.” Suddeutsche Zeitung has confirmed that this is also its approach, saying the complete set of documents "won't be made available to the public or to law enforcement agencies. That's because the SZ isn't the extended arm of prosecutors or the tax investigators.”
In this context, Al Jazeera’s program, The Listening Post, asks whether the media involved with the reporting have actually “censored the story” by deliberately withholding information that “could be in the public interest.”
WATCH: Media Review: Panama Papers
So what does doing journalism "responsibly" involve? What should be published, and what should be kept secret? The Suddeutsche Zeitung, in its guide "About the Panama Papers," explains the methodology as follows,
“The journalists compiled lists of important politicians, international criminals, and well-known professional athletes, among others. The digital processing made it possible to then search the leak for the names on these lists. The 'party donations scandal' list contained 130 names, and the UN sanctions list more than 600. In just a few minutes, the powerful search algorithm compared the lists with the 11.5 million documents.”
The major focus, then, was on those subject to UN sanctions, and using off-shore tax havens and law firms, as a means to evade the sanctions. This is an exceptionally narrow line of investigation, given that the documents cover some forty years from the 1970s onward, and potentially involves hundreds of thousands of businesses.
Former British diplomat Craig Murray used his website to express dismay with this method, suggesting that the research method protected “the Western 1%”, and asking: “What if they did Mossack Fonseca database searches on the owners of all the corporate media and their companies, and all the editors and senior corporate media journalists?”
Given the narrowness of their focus, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the results of the investigation are oddly skewed. Many newspapers, for example, took the intriguing step of foregrounding the corruption of one Vladimir Putin who, though undoubtedly corrupt, is not himself named in the papers.
The Guardian’s first major story on the papers headlined, "Revealed: the $2bn offshore trail that leads to Vladimir Putin," discloses how close friends of Vladimir Putin have become “fabulously wealthy” through a series of offshore deals, and adds: “The documents suggest Putin’s family has benefited from this money — his friends’ fortunes appear his to spend.”
It also produced a short video on the Papers, leading with Putin’s visage and explaining, “how to hide a billion dollars.”
CNN describes the same story, before adding: “Putin's name is not on any of the documents. He is the legal owner, it seems, of nothing untoward.” But this only “shows how corruption really works in Russia”: Putin favors his allies with lucrative contracts and favorable loans, not cash.
This may be true. But what if Putin and his oligarch allies only account for a fraction of the global wealth being protected in tax havens? And what if the link to Putin is relatively obscure and based on inference and circumstantial evidence?
The Washington Post has the answer: blame Putin for the leak. That’s right: the newspaper reports a ‘theory’ advanced by Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution which suggests that if Putin is not sufficiently incriminated by the leak, then he must be “the mastermind” behind it.
The theory even suggests that the failure of the leaks to thus far incriminate a single leading American politician or businessman means that Putin is holding back information for potential blackmail.
It is true that the “power players” listed on the official International Consortium of Investigative Journalists website doesn’t include a single politician or businessman from the United States.
But there are a number of possible explanations for this.
One is that American billionaires prefer to take advantage of opportunities for tax evasion in the United States: such as Delaware, the legal home of 285,000 American businesses as of 2012 thanks to its reputation as a haven from taxes and regulations. The New York Times quotes economist James Henry, saying that Americans “don’t really need to go to Panama” to hide wealth; they have access to an “onshore haven industry.”
Another is that the narrow focus of the investigation and the suppression of information has meant that any members of the American one percent who do use Mossack Fonseca are simply not being publicly identified.
The point is not to deny Putin’s corruption and authoritarianism, but to suggest that a media which behaves like this may just be a little bit obsessed with scapegoating the Russian leader for the ills of this world - and in its way is a mirror image of Putin himself calling a press conference to denounce the papers as a "conspiracy" against him.
The ideological reactions of the international media are just as instructive as their particular investigative focus, and these are very clear in their editorial columns.
The New York Times editorializes with considerable fire and brimstone against the “global elite” of “politicians, dictators, criminals, billionaires and celebrities”, but — lest anyone draw the conclusion that the Times has turned against its core audience — reminds everyone that “offshore banking is not in itself illegal, and not all those named should be presumed to have done wrong." It is only chiefly problematic because it allows overseas rogues with “ill gotten gains,” “whether in Iceland, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia,” to escape accountability.
The Guardian, for its part, does acknowledge that there is something problematic even in legal tax evasion, and is particularly concerned that if such practices go on, people may regard their rulers with “automatic contempt” — this “may be appropriate” in dictatorships but is “harmful — and potentially disastrous — in the liberal democracies”.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has simply lost control of the anti-Bernie Sanders animus that has been driving its editors and journalists mad in recent months. Its major editorial on the Panama Papers is headlined: “The Panama Papers prove Mr. Sanders was wrong about a trade pact with Panama.” That’s right: the American capital’s "paper of record" saw in the Panama Papers an opportunity to once again belabor the Senator from Vermont, this time for opposing a free trade pact with Panama.
But even if the media organisations involved in this leak are keeping a tight lid on the data, even if they have thus far pursued a narrow agenda, and even if they have used the revelations to pursue their own frankly bizarre hobby-horses, it is too soon to write off the Panama Papers as a disappointment.
Practically all media outlets agree that there is a lot more to come.
The BBC, in its jaunty listicle identifying “10 things we’ve learned” from the papers, acknowledges that “So far we have read only a small percentage of the total number of documents.”
According to the Latin Times, even Panama - and these leaks concern only one firm operating there - is a “miniscule piece” of the total business of the tax avoidance industry, with some sixty to sixty-five other countries hosting the same industries.
The tax havens hold “around 8 percent of global financial wealth — approximately $7.6 trillion” according to Al Jazeera.
The big stories may yet be to come. But the big picture has been known for some time. The problem is not just a number of international rogues with stolen money. The problem is precisely that, as the New York Times says and Mossack Fonseca stridently insists, there is nothing illegal about most of this. Tax resistance on the part of the rich, a means of class war, has been escalating globally since the 1980s — and it is all within the law. And if we had a better media, the stories we are hearing would be telling us about that.