Thursday, July 28, 2016

Panama Papers - the back story

A deluge of 40 years' worth of records - emails, account records, spreadsheets - about offshore companies from around the globe, leaked by an anonymous John Doe. They described the financial machinations, some legal some not, orchestrated by Mossack Fonesta, a law firm in Panama. Mossack Fonesta set up secretive offshore companies in a system that at the very least represented aggressive tax sheltering just within the law, to shadow companies to hide the fruits of crime and corruption.

The leak comprised 11.5 million documents including 4.8M emails, 2M PDFs, and 1M images. 2.6 terabytes* of data in all. Put that up against a newspaper industry ravaged by the onslaught of online advertising with investigative journalism resources in radical decline because of those financial pressures. In such an environment, how could one possibly investigate these documents fully?

Gerard Ryle
The German newspaper German Süddeutsche Zeitung initially received all this material. Faced with a task far beyond their own resources, they contacted International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for help. What happened next is a remarkable story.  At the recent TED Summit Gerald Ryle, head of the ICIJ, told us that story. A marvel of collaboration unfolded. The handful of journalists at the ICIJ were joined by 350 journalists from over 100 media companies in 80 different countries who brought 'native eyes to bear on native names'. The data was stored in a huge database and sophisticated software helped uncover links and cross references, based on nationality, industry, or themes such as sports or blood diamonds. Nobody met in person and communication was through online encrypted messages. It was a monumental task and 'a milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration'**.

What makes this story even more remarkable is the fact this disparate group of media players, whose corporate DNA was based on 'getting the scoop', did this work in total secrecy. The worked for over a year, without pay, without breaking ranks. Ryle described the constant persuasion required to maintain secrecy. As Ryle put it, "the greatest noise had to be preceded by the greatest silence"As other events were unfolding - in Brazil or around FIFA for instance - whose coverage could have been bolstered by reference to the Panama Papers, journalists begged to release the news. But the confidentiality agreements held. The news was published simultaneously in 76 countries on April 3 2016, along with many of the original documents. We all know the story of the fallout of these papers, up to the resignation of Iceland's prime minister. The back story is almost as interesting.

It was a wonderful heartwarming story told by a quiet man clearly more comfortable with writing words than in speaking them (watch his talk here). He was encouraged with applause from the audience during several stumbles in his talk; that was a great habit started by the TED Fellows (see more about the TED Fellow here).

* 1 terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes. That's a lot of data!
** quoted from Wikipedia

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