"The Panama Papers", The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
The world of offshore finance had long been obscure and under-reported; in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Panama, the world’s wealthy obtained secrecy with the best lawyers money could buy. That changed in 2016, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on what came to be known as “The Panama Papers.” It was the largest leak in the history of journalism: 2.6 terabytes of emails, database files and PDFs from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. ICIJ coordinated the work of 376 journalists across the world, producing a series of reports culminating in a searchable database. The ripples of the leak are still being felt as 12 world leaders were named in the reports and multiple resignations and investigations have followed. We spoke to Michael Hudson, a senior editor at ICIJ.
CPCJ: How do you see distinctions between government leaks and corporate leaks?
Michael Hudson: I don’t know if I see any major distinction between getting data leaked from the US government or from corporate sources. There’s leaks where it’s not really “a leak” in the sense that the government wants it out, but they want to do that undercover. At least in the US, there is a lot of great information that doesn’t need to be leaked. It’s part of the public record, or it theoretically should be. It takes so long to get a response from a lot of agencies when journalists file a Freedom of Information Act request, so I always try to get an actual leak from somebody who has the records and may not be in the government but maybe worked peripherally or went and made a complaint to the government.
When you get a real leak from a source outside government, it takes a lot of work to turn it into a strong investigative project. We have 12 full-time journalists at ICIJ, and roughly half of the staff is dedicated to data journalism. A lot of that involves taking the digital leaks and putting them into some sort of state where they can be keyword-searched. There were all these TIFF files and PDFs and obscure formats that were no longer in use, so our team had to figure out how to make them searchable.
With “The Panama Papers,” the structure of the database didn’t come in its raw, original form—it came piecemeal, so there was a lot of reverse engineering. We had more than 30 temporary servers that we were using to process the documents and do optical character recognition on PDF and TIFF files. We’ve got genius people working with us who were able to pull that off and put it in one place. This turned into the database, which our collaborating journalists spent nearly a year digging through.
The other thing we did was create a separate platform, which we call the I-Hub Communications Platform. It was very secure —double verification, password protected. In here, people could talk about what they were finding in the documents. You could go to the document trove and instead of having to make a copy of the document, you could just use the secret URL, and cut and paste it into the communications forum.
Our data people used a software that had been used for online dating sites, which meant we could have threaded conversations. Someone could go and say, “Look, I just found Politician A connected to Company X,” and someone else could say, “Oh, well I found Politician B connected to a subsidiary of Company X in a different country,” and someone else would come on and say, “Oh you know, if you search for these key words or these codes, you’d probably find out more about Company X and other people who are connected.” It was a very cool process because two things that journalists are not known for are patience and teamwork. To get hundreds of journalists to work together, hold off on publishing anything until an agreed-upon date and share information with each other is pretty amazing.
Sometimes it took a little prodding from us, but then they would see other people posting that they found the soccer star Lionel Messi connected to this activity, and everyone is jumping on saying, “That’s terrific, way to go!” Others would then start posting their own stuff. The other cool thing was the ability to keep it secret for a year. Journalists are gossips, and they want to be able to tell people what they know. But now you have this community of people you can talk to, and essentially gossip to, who all know exactly what you’re talking about.
CPCJ: Particularly with such a monumental project, that seems psychologically necessary, right?
MH: It does. Our partner in Iceland was a freelancer, and he just worked alone in his house. Iceland is so tiny —like 300,000 people —so he couldn’t talk to anybody. He was just in his house with blacked-out windows. He had one of the biggest stories in Iceland’s history and maybe the biggest story of all in “The Panama Papers.” It was the story that brought down a prime minister. A memoir of one of [former UK prime minister] David Cameron’s aides just came out covering how close Cameron actually was to stepping down as a result of “The Panama Papers.”
With a lot of Western journalists, there are threats and legal concerns, but I think we’re pretty safe. US journalists have the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act. It’s very rare that American journalists get thrown in jail for reporting something our government doesn’t like, but there are a lot of really courageous journalists in other countries who are taking real risks. We hope that by having this support system —being able to link them up with journalists in other countries who are working on the same story —we can send a signal to those governments that the world is watching. It’s not just this one publication or this one journalist in a country watching. There is going to be some blowback if something happens.
CPCJ: ICIJ is funded by donations and foundation grants? Do you think of the model as using this funding to leverage the power of private media organizations?
MH: We have gotten some donations, but the vast majority of money comes from places like the Ford Foundation. The thing about ICIJ that’s different from some of the investigative reporting nonprofits in the US is that we are getting money from overseas from people like Graeme Thomas Wood in Australia.
We’re intentionally nonprofit—but there are “unintentionally” nonprofit media organizations. The vast majority of the people we’re working with are already employed by the BBC, The Guardian, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. I don’t know if our model solves any of the traditional media outlets’ economic challenges, but it certainly helps them to do big investigative journalism projects efficiently. Also, it helps keep the stories alive because the amount of traffic that all our partners got on “The Panama Papers” is incredible. The assumption that your competitors are going to take away your audience if they’re doing the same story is not true. The story becomes a trending topic on Twitter, and you have the multiplier effect. In the first few weeks of publication, ICIJ stories, data projects and data visualizations got 80 million page views.
CPCJ: Is there ever an issue with private partners sharing that kind of pageview-level data with ICIJ?
MH: Some share that data and some don’t. I should note that while they may publish stories produced directly by ICIJ, they’re also publishing their own stories. We’re not telling anyone what story to write. They know best how to serve their audience, how to write the story and how to operate within the media law and political system in their own country. But we do offer global stories, which people then pick up, take and rewrite to somewhat localize them —also by having their story and our story side by side. Not everyone says yes to sharing pageview numbers, but we ask them to put in tracking code so that we know what kind of traffic they’re getting on the stories that are ours.
CPCJ: So it almost works like a wire service?
MH: A little bit, yes—which is one of the reasons we haven’t worked with wire services like the Associated Press, Reuters or Bloomberg. If you’re The Guardian and you know if your competitors can run the Associated Press version of the story, then you’re losing something. Essentially what we’ve tried to do is have one or two main partners in each country. Sometimes it works out really well because you have the traditional newspaper or online partner and then the broadcaster like BBC and The Guardian. Sometimes it’s more than two. In Germany, we had Süddeutsche, the originator of the whole project, and two public broadcasters, NDR and WDR. Sometimes our two partners within the country are working parallel tracks, and they may share stuff within the larger forum of information, but I think the Germans have been pretty good about working together and actually sharing information even more intensely between each other. It’s very interesting to see what happens when people decide to work together instead of competing.
CPCJ: A lot of the projects that ICIJ works on are extremely complex, multifaceted stories. When you are reporting this kind of story, what do you do with the calls for change that arise out of it? How do you see reporting on policy or advocacy proposals that come out of this enormous spotlight on this previously quite obscure subject?
MH: We try to track everything, and fortunately we have partners who let us know things like that their government’s parliament has just introduced new legislation. We also have a lot of updates on “The Panama Papers” page and our blog, The Global Muckraker. We are working on a story now that is going to take a deeper dive into what has happened so far in offshore reform —what promises have been made, what has actually been done, and what the prospects are for real change.
One of the big issues that we’ve highlighted before is the ability of the offshore system to morph and respond to new rules and legislations. One or two jurisdictions come under fire, and the customers go to other jurisdictions. When those come under fire, the customers go elsewhere with the same types of transactions and secrecy tools. The offshore world is very good at innovating. Every five or 10 years there have been moments when international organizations and big Western powers say, “This is the end of offshore as we know it. Offshore banking secrecy is over,” and it hasn’t happened. It’s still an ongoing battle. We do feel that one of our responsibilities is to stay on the story. We do the big blow-out pieces and get lots of attention, but we keep going. We will keep coming back to public officials and ask, “You promised to do this —what is happening?” I think that’s an important part of what we do.
CPCJ: You said before that this felt like the biggest story you’d worked on in terms of generating a critical mass of attention. Was there some sort of fairy dust that made it this one, and not the others?
MH: I think the sheer size of this project made a difference. We were dealing with 11.5 million records, working with more than 100 partners and had a dozen current world leaders directly attached to offshore holdings plus dozens of others whose family members, business partners and associates were also involved. From “The Panama Papers,” we saw the governmental impact in Iceland and the UK. We were also able to to put a dollar figure estimate of more than $2 billion being moved around by a network of companies, individuals and banks that were interlinked and ultimately connected to Vladimir Putin. I also think that the anger toward economic and political elites has continued to grow. It was strong in 2013 when we came out with our first offshore investigation, “Offshore Leaks,” but it’s even stronger now.
In creating this new model of journalism, we’ve learned how to launch [a project like this] better and what to emphasize. For me, the best stories are the ones you can really connect the impact of the decisions of powerful people with people on the ground.