The scope of the Panama Papers, the logistics involved and the sheer weight of data make it the most extensive and successful investigation undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The project had its origins with the leaking of around 11.5 million records among 2.6 terabytes of data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. The data revealed in fine detail the financial dealings of world leaders, as well as despots, global mafia figures, weapons dealers and drug suppliers.
The German newspaper said the source of the material wanted no financial compensation and asked only for encryption during any discussions over the data. The purpose of the leak, according to the source, was to “make these crimes public”.
Because of the extent of the material, Süddeutsche Zeitung invited the international journalists’ consortium to collaborate.
In the end, more than 370 journalists in more than 80 countries at more than 100 media organisations contributed to the stories.
ICIJ director and former Fairfax journalist Gerard Ryle told WIRED the leak was “about 2000 times larger than the WikiLeaks state department cables”. “It’s indeed the biggest leak in history,” he said.
Details of the Panama Papers were broken in The Australian Financial Review on Monday by Neil Chenoweth, who is an ICIJ journalist and contributed to the investigation. All papers gave extensive coverage in the following days as the ramifications unfolded.
In Australian, the Tax Office confirmed it would investigate 800 Australian individuals for the first time as a result of the exposé. Internationally, Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resigned after he was linked financially in the papers to an offshore company, triggering mass protests Reykjavik.
The Panama Papers project took more than a year, with Mike Hudson, a senior ICIJ editor joining the team for the last six months. Hudson told the Poytner Institute the art of collaboration was something that has taken the organisation a long time to learn through the experience of its previous investigations.
The news organisations and journalists involved have to be willing to collaborate, Hudson said. The journalists shared sources, transcripts and videos of interviews and swapped ideas.
“That’s what really makes it go,” he said.
Those involved also had to understand that more than 100 news organisations publishing at the same time would not necessarily mean less audience for each.
“I think that publishing together creates a critical mass,” Hudson said, “just this incredible firestorm of attention.”
He said team work and patience were vital, as everyone involved had agreed to publish at the same time. The benefit, Hudson said, is that you are not so worried about being scooped.
“We’re not the boss of everyone,” Hudson said of the Washington-based ICIJ, “but we’re definitely trying to coordinate and make sure that everyone is working together and make sure that people know what other people are doing.”
Hudson told Poynter the difficulties were not over people’s willingness to work together, but the complexity of co-ordinating them all. People managed themselves and worked in small teams within larger groups around topics in the investigation.
The results, he said, show two things: the power of the internet and the power of journalists working together.
The Australian Financial Review’s sister paper, The Sydney Morning Herald reflected on the significance of the body of work in an editorial this week.
“Readers should not expect the Panama Papers to stop tax havens, just as last week’s revelations from Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post about Australian involvement in foreign bribery in the oil market will not stop those practices,” it said. “But the more whistleblowers and investigative journalists shine a light on secretive misdeeds, the riskier such activities become – and everyone benefits.”
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