Global Affairs

The era of mega-leaks has arrived

The leak of the 'Panama Papers' was less a triumph of investigative journalism and more a case of a 'fishing expedition' trawling for information.

LONDON • The "Panama Papers" revelations have shaken the world, as millions of documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca indicate that politicians, top businessmen and a variety of officials from many nations created intricate offshore companies and dubious investment vehicles in order to avoid paying taxes on an industrial scale.

The public outrage which greeted these revelations is justified. Still, if the row over the Panama Papers is not carefully handled, it can easily spill over into a wider and perhaps uncontrollable backlash against globalisation and free financial markets. And that would not only fail to improve governance around the world, but it will also hit the pocket of the average salary-earner.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) are entitled to feel proud of their achievement. They have acted as the coordinating platform for an astonishing network of hundreds of other journalists around the world who analysed an estimated 11.2 million Panama documents.

 

More significantly, the ICIJ's work unearthed a treasure trove of documents on the activities of the famous and the infamous. Not all of this is earth-shattering: Are we really that astonished to discover that Russian oligarchs, Arab princes, Chinese princelings and some African presidents park their money in secret bank accounts or shell companies?

Nevertheless, the documents cast a needed searching light on the dubious activities of people and governments. To use just one example, the US$2 billion worth of assets shifted around the world by Mr Sergei Roldugin, a musician who just happens to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's best friend, has raised eyebrows.

So has President Putin's novel explanation that Mr Roldugin is using his wealth to buy musical instruments; since such money is sufficient to equip at least 2,000 new orchestras, perhaps Western intelligence agencies should devote less time to tracking the rise of Russia's military and concentrate instead on Russia's stealthy aspirations to dominate music.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

It was also timely for ICIJ journalists to produce evidence that, while people around the world are forced to pay higher taxes and see their money used to bail out banks which faced bankruptcy, the richest members of society effortlessly shield their cash from the taxman. This is certainly offensive, perhaps immoral and sometimes illegal.

CROCODILE WAITING FOR NEXT MEAL

Still, it's worth pointing out that what the ICIJ engaged in is not investigative journalism, at least not within the traditionally accepted sense of that term.

Previous generations of investigative journalists either suspected a misdemeanour or obtained a lead and pursued it, doggedly unearthing scraps of information and putting these together to secure their media scoop. Of course, leaks from insiders often helped; that's what happened with the Watergate media investigation during the early 1970s, to name but one celebrated case. But invariably, it was up to the journalist to map out his or her investigation.

However, today's investigative journalism appears to be vastly different: Instead of following a story, it merely requires sitting still like a crocodile expecting its next meal to come along, waiting until a whistle-blower dumps a huge quantity of data stolen from a government or a company, and then digging through it to find an interesting narrative.

That's what happened with the WikiLeaks publication of US diplomatic cables in 2010, stolen by the soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning; with the Snowden revelations of US intelligence procedures in 2013; and with a whole host of other leaks from Swiss and Luxembourg banks during the past decade.

In each case, journalists accepted the data dumps not because they knew what they were looking for, but because they suspected that, once they dug, they would find something. Undoubtedly, the Panama Papers are a big scoop. But they do not represent journalism's proudest moment.

Does it matter? Yes, a great deal. What the ICIJ has done is what in law would be called a "fishing expedition", namely the trawling of information in order to find alleged crimes. It's a practice which most law-abiding countries frown upon, because it leads to witch-hunts and rough justice. And so it may do in this case.

We have no idea who the person is who leaked the Panama Papers; he merely identified himself as "John Doe", the generic "non-name" in the English language since at least the 14th century. We have no proof as to what his - or her or their - motives were.

We have no way of knowing whether some of the material is fake; it consists of copies of e-mail and scans of paper documents, both of which can be easily forged.

More importantly, we don't know whether this is all the material, or whether the leaker may have destroyed some of it in return for payment from those who were desperate not to have their names dragged out in public. Under normal circumstances, no self-respecting newspaper would have touched material of such dubious, uncertain and unproven provenance. But when it comes as 2.6 terabytes of encrypted data, it bizarrely gets the status of "evidence".

GUILTY BY INSINUATION

The result is injustice, as the experience of British Prime Minister David Cameron proves. His father did not park his money overseas as others are accused of doing; he merely ran an overseas investment fund. He declared his earnings to Britain's Inland Revenue, as did his son, the current prime minister, who had a small investment stake. His father is also deceased. However, the mere fact of a Cameron - even a dead one - featuring in the Panama Papers is considered a "scandal" is a classic case of guilt by insinuation and association.

But there is worse, for the entire campaign against offshore accounts and anonymous investment vehicles which the Panama Papers has unleashed proceeds from the assumption that secrecy in financial matters is almost always bad.

THE CASE FOR BANKING SECRECY

Yet that's just dangerous nonsense. There are many perfectly benign reasons people may want privacy in their financial affairs.

These could range from the need to avoid alerting their family that they plan to leave all their inheritance to a cats' home, to the desire to leave a legacy for, say, an illegitimate child or reward a secret lover.

Whatever it is, privacy isn't a privilege but a right, a fundamental building block of civilised society. People should continue to enjoy the right to set up private financial trusts for essentially the same reason that most of us choose not read our bank statements on the MRT, in full view of other commuters. Of course, banking secrecy has been and can be abused. But that applies to every other human activity, and is not a justification for withdrawing it.

The same applies to the right of people to transfer their legally owned cash to jurisdictions which offer them a better investment regime. Of course, that allows some people to avoid tax - which is legal but not popular - or to evade tax, which is illegal.

But the principle that each government has a sovereign right to decide on its own tax regime is cardinal to the global world order, and the ability of capital to flow to where it gets best returns is essential for continued economic prosperity. If these rights are restricted, as the frenzy generated by the Panama Papers now implies, it won't be the rich who will suffer, but ordinary people who will see returns on their investments and pension funds slashed.

None of this is to justify corruption, money laundering, tax evasion or other criminal activities which may take place in the so-called "tax havens"; better international regulation and law enforcement are required to combat all these.

Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that in doing so, governments run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of destroying some of the most important pillars of the global economy by unduly restricting the flow of capital.

Meanwhile, the fashion for mega-leaks will continue. I, for one, want the next major leak to provide us with all the e-mails and banking records of the world's major media proprietors, as well as the salaries and expense accounts of the world's top journalists. Not out of any voyeuristic interest, of course, but just in order to promote openness, and make sure that our media networks remain morally upright.

Somehow, however, I doubt I'll get my wish.

For if there is one privacy journalists always respect it is that of their media proprietors who, of course, have never thought of reducing their tax liabilities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'The era of mega-leaks has arrived'. Print Edition | Subscribe