Without closure, we aren’t quite in Paradise yet
From Panama to Paradise to Perdition. Global issues like tax avoidance need global awareness and global answers. Here comes a network of 135 investigative reporters around the world toiling over seven long months. And here’s a bumper bundle of 13.4 million documents from Bermuda, Singapore and 19 assorted havens. This is data journalism on a grand scale.
“You think about investigative journalism and you think about Woodward and Bernstein and you think about meeting Deep Throat in the car park at two in the morning. We’ve gone from Woodward and Bernstein to geeks looking at vast datasets,” the Guardian’s Luke Harding told admirers from the Poynter Institute. It’s a triumph – with headaches attached.
The first migraine, throbbing a little as the new data protection bill passes through parliament, is the difficulty of keeping such grand collaborations clear of legal retribution.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Munich paper that seems to act as delivery point for the hackers who gathered those 13.4 million embarrassments, shelters its sources punctiliously. But most of the tax ploys revealed aren’t illegal. The stories are calculated to rile the rich and powerful operating in scores of legal environments. How long before the angry empire strikes back?
Data protection – mixing privacy, defences against criminality and the high grass of confidentiality – is a moveable feast. See how an assortment of peers is trying to use the new data protection bill as a vehicle to force papers to sign up for a Leveson-blessed regulator (which, of course, has nothing to do with tax gambits). See, too, how tests of the “public interest” in exposure can be ignored under pressure, especially in the early stages of an operation when illicitly obtained data is being examined for clinching material. Secrecy is absolutely imperative.
Perhaps the Paradise Papers, in their weight of damning detail, settle such problems this time around. But perhaps, too, the second headache is more problematic because it confronts the media’s own presentational difficulties.
Global stories, tracked down by reporters in dozens of countries, don’t emerge as global on the page. To the contrary, they’re targeted at individual nations. So the UK gets the Queen’s offshore adventures plus the future king’s green-fingered, red-faced investments in deforestation (and tax) relief. Meanwhile the same online Guardian coverage, this time for America, tops off with fat Republican donors writing even fatter cheques – and Trump’s offshore pals. Canada has Justin Trudeau’s money man in a jam. France (via Le Monde) is excited because the country’s richest man has spread some of his riches far from sight. Sweden has the chief of the employers’ organisation on the rack. Ireland has Bono.
And this is only the tip of the Paradise iceberg. It’s huge. But is it too huge? Conventional investigations move on a scandal at a time: select, aim, fire. In Paradise, as in Panama, the revelations come at tidal-wave strength – but can also leave their victims standing. Look through the list of those who used Panama boltholes. Close relatives of China’s President Xi, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev, South Africa’s President Zuma, and many more.
Panama put tax avoidance on the map. Paradise, after much brilliant and daring toil, nails it there. But investigative reporters may also soon need to stand back and assess ways and means. Is global a definition of ambition? Does the whole parade move on too quickly, leaving the news cycle trailing behind?
Data journalism is a child of the digital age. The challenge is giving it enough time and resolution; turning shock and indignation into closure.