BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. This week, President Obama said this about the vast network of tax shelters and money laundering operations exposed by a massive leak called the Panama Papers:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Global tax avoidance, generally, is a huge problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: A lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Legal but still embarrassing and potentially career ending if you’re a politician. Among those named in the leak was British Prime Minister David Cameron who admitted, finally, that he reaped profits from shares his father stashed in Panamanian tax shelters – but he sold all that years ago.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: Rules have changed and culture has changed and, as I say, I welcome that. I want to be as clear as I can about the past, about the present, about the future because, frankly, I don’t have anything to hide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, you know, Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resigned after he was found to have squirreled away cash during his country's banking collapse.
Plucky little Iceland. Don't hold your breath waiting for any of the other named politicians, 143 and counting, to step down. I mean, there is Bashar al-Assad, the king of Saudi Arabia, the presidents of Argentina and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin - also on the walk of no shame, Jackie Chan, FIFA and Simon Cowell. By the way, did you know “American Idol” ended this week? Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
BOB GARFIELD: It was a very big leak, in fact, the biggest ever, more than 11 million documents from a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonseca, leaked over time by a Mr. John Doe to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Overwhelmed, the paper sought help from the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which enlisted almost 400 journalists from some 100 news outlets worldwide.
Does this auger the future of journalism, bigger and bigger leaks, larger and larger consortiums? Maybe. It’s very complex and technically challenging work because though they’re called documents, it doesn't necessarily follow that you can read them, as Gerard Ryle, the head of the Consortium of Investigative Journalists, explains.
GERARD RYLE: They came in different formats. You had spreadsheets, you had passport details, PDFs. In fact, a lot of the documents you couldn't even read, and so we had to spend a lot of time using optical character recognition to scan them into a searchable database. And then we started bringing in more reporters because we could see at that point that there were even more countries involved.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, even with 400 reporters, 11 million documents is a lot of material to sort through, which means there had to be more systematic way of going about finding relevant names of individuals and companies. You actually built a proprietary search engine?
GERARD RYLE: Yes, we just used open software, literally piped all the material down over the Internet into the newsrooms using encrypted technology, and then they could log into the search system and search for names themselves. Parallel to that, we also asked the reporters when they went into their physical newsrooms every day to also log onto the ICIJ and what we called the iHub, which was our virtual newsroom. It was built a bit like Facebook where, as soon as they found something interesting in the documents, they immediately posted what they found. If someone was interested, for instance, in drug dealers or diamond dealers or, or say a country like Iceland or Brazil, they could form their own groups and then have chats and searches and links to documents and other findings in there.
And also in that virtual newsroom if there was a – you know, a court case we needed to find or a court document, you could go to the country, get the document and also upload it and link it. And so, you had this amazing almost library of information that was building as the collaboration continued.
BOB GARFIELD: So did the reporters from any given country just go through the search engine and type in the names of their usual suspects, their politicians and tycoons?
GERARD RYLE: Well, I think every reporter started doing that, of course, but over time you realized that you weren't getting the hits you wanted, so then you learned that you needed to basically go where the documents brought you and you needed to search in different ways.
I remember at one point we had a big breakthrough when one of the Swiss reporters found a way of searching passport details, so you could literally type in a code and every American passport would pop up. So, of course, if you were an American reporter looking at this, that was a great place to start. And from there you went outside the documents when you found interesting people, people that had been convicted of crimes or in some countries there were politicians.
But the other big advantage of working in this way is that we had what I would call native reporters looking at native names. So the Brazilians were looking at the Brazilian names, the Icelandic reporter was looking at the Icelandic names. And so, you were very quickly able to establish if someone was a politician or a public official, someone of public interest.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, the whole point of going to offshore locations to create shell corporations is to avoid scrutiny. [LAUGHS] So, you know, it’s not as though you - you type in “Vladimir Putin” and you hit all of his accounts in Panama and elsewhere. You discovered, in his case, that the dealings centered on not the chairman of Gazprom or not any other obvious oligarch but [LAUGHS] – but, of course, a classical cellist.
GERARD RYLE: Well, this is a man called Sergei Roldugin. He has gone on the record to the New York Times in the past as saying that he is nothing but a cellist; he is not a businessman. But in these documents we found, this cellist was actually the owner of a number of offshore companies, and those offshore companies were getting very large bank loans from a state bank in Russia. I mean, some of these loans were basically being assigned to companies for the princely sum of one dollar, and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. And so, we were able to suddenly find things that were secret until then.
And, of course, in the virtual newsroom a group popped up called Russia and Putin and all these eyes started looking at the documents and more and more things fell out.
BOB GARFIELD: A lot of big names, like Putin, like Assad. Is this the cream or, as you sift through more and more mountains of data, can we expect other high-profile money launderers and thieves and tax cheats to emerge?
GERARD RYLE: I would hope that after a year of looking at this with hundreds of journalists [LAUGHS] around the world that we have actually found at least most of the cream. But I do think there’ll be fallout. We have more stories planned. And, of course, all of the media partners we worked with, which were more than 100, they’ve got their own schedules, as well, so we think the stories will continue to run out for weeks. And eventually, of course, we hope to publish more of the documents, which should trigger more stories. We’re already seeing new stories emerge that we weren't aware of that were in there.
BOB GARFIELD: Since you're not going to release the documents to the public en masse, do these news organizations have an ongoing commitment to stay on this?
GERARD RYLE: I think you'll find that the news organizations that we got involved will stay with the story. I mean, I think it's important to distinguish though between just publishing everything and publishing what is in the public interest. One of the things we’re trying to do as journalists is actually reclaim that ground that I think was lost to organizations like WikiLeaks. And no way criticizing WikiLeaks or what they do, it’s just that I don't necessarily think that journalists should be doing that.
I think journalists should apply journalistic ethics and journalistic practice to these kind of documents, which is why you're seeing so many politicians, by the way, in their first few days, because there’s no argument that these people are of public interest. They’re elected to office and what we have found is that some of them didn't tell the public that they had these holdings offshore.
BOB GARFIELD: Within five minutes or so of you releasing the first stores on the Panama Papers, a counter-narrative emerged from skeptics and apologists wondering why this is focused on Putin and Mugabe and not on Americans, that very few US individuals or entities have been named in the early reporting and that, therefore, it's clear that ICIJ is some sort of CIA operation aimed to embarrass America's adversaries. Are you a front for the CIA?
GERARD RYLE: I would reject that entirely, and I think it’s quite laughable. In fact, we just published a story showing how the CIA actually uses the offshore world. What happened when we sent the questions to Vladimir Putin's associates about a week before publication - we did that because we had genuine reason to believe that the reporters in Russia we were working with were in potential danger if we went too soon, you know, in other cases, for instance, in Iceland we had gone three weeks prior to publication to get comment - but as soon as the questions landed in Russia, the Kremlin called a press conference and denounced us. And, at that point, Vladimir Putin probably thought this whole thing was just about him. But then two days later, the TASS News Agency were perfectly happy to also report that we had named the president of Ukraine, you know, that we have named Ian Cameron, the dad of David Cameron, the British prime minister.
You asked about American names? Well, we actually worked with the McClatchy group here in the US, and the Miami Herald has been digging into the American names and publishing the American names. The fact is simply this, that there were no politicians or public officials in the data from America. But I can tell you that there were some interesting celebrities in there, and eventually we will release those names. But from an editorial point of view, I wasn’t that interested in celebrities when I first looked at this. I wanted this to be more than just titillation. Yes, we could have gone down that path. We chose not to. But eventually all of the American names will come out.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the sheer volume of this evidence that Mossack Fonseca in Panama kind of has cornered the market on shell entities or that it's just the tip of a much larger iceberg?
GERARD RYLE: There are about 800 other firms out there doing exactly the same thing. Mossack Fonseca is one of the top five registerers of offshore companies in the world, but they were unusual in that they were in so many different jurisdictions. They’re here in the US - they had two offices here - and China, they’re in New Zealand, they’re in England. They’re everywhere, being set up on behalf of major banks and institutions and accountancy firms and law firms around the world, including many here in the US.
BOB GARFIELD: And most of it, however sleazy, is nonetheless legal.
GERARD RYLE: Yes, I mean, it is not illegal by itself to go and register an offshore company, but what we were looking at was a lot of things that you would have to say are very questionable. When we went to Mossack Fonseca for comment, they responded that, in fact, a lot of the people we were looking at, a lot of the end users of these companies were not, in fact, their clients. They argued that, in fact, the client was the bank and if the bank came to them looking to set up an offshore account for one of the bank customers, then they took no responsibility for finding out who that person really was. So that's why we found in the data things like, if you typed in the word “Pyongyang” into our search system, you found a company that was registered in the capital of North Korea. Now, that would have normally sent alarm bells out, you would have thought. And sure enough, when you go outside the data and you look at the international sanctions, just there was that company. It was actually the North Korean State, which seems incredible.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you or has Süddeutsche Zeitung heard from other whistleblowers as a direct result of the Panama Papers?
GERARD RYLE: I'm not sure whether they've been contacted by anybody new, but you do touch on a very good point. I do think that technology today really allows this kind of radical transparency, because whoever gathered this material did so in a way that wouldn't even have been possible 5 or 10 years ago. So, you know, what we’re in the era of now is the era of huge leaks. I mean, it’s not that difficult to gather this much material now. We had every email and every document going back to 1977 in this leak. This is the largest leak in history, but in probably two or three years’ time we’ll be talking about something twice or three times the size.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, Gerard, I have some good news for you and I have some bad news for you. The good news is that, as you expected, the Panama Papers have captured the attention of the media throughout the world, except two places. One is China, which has this great firewall. The other is the US. To what can you possibly attribute the crickets that met your big scoops?
GERARD RYLE: Well, you know, I was told this when I first came to America and I didn't believe it, that if you’re not working with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or “60 Minutes” or NPR then it doesn't matter. But as the reporting has come out, we’re now finding our way onto the front pages. And, in fact, I think the public editor at the New York Times had to write a column defending why the New York Times didn't run this on the front page on day one; they put it on page three. But I, I was quite heartened to see that newspapers like USA Today just thought, okay, this is a great news story, let’s, let’s remake the front page and go for it.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you go to them and did they send you packing?
GERARD RYLE: We did not go to the New York Times with this project but we have approached them in the past to collaborate, and it hasn't worked out, [LAUGHS] the polite way of putting it. You know, my theory on that is that really the biggest news outlets in America still think that they're big enough on their own, whereas the rest of the world has now realized that the financial models that have sustained our journalism in the past are actually broken, and they’re more willing to look at new ways of doing things, whereas the big American outlets, they think that they don't need to collaborate. And I just think that they just haven’t caught up with the real world yet, and eventually they will.
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BOB GARFIELD: Gerard, thank you so much.
GERARD RYLE: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Gerard Ryle is the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which coordinated the Panama Papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, we take a trip with the Panama Papers around the world and down the Canal.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.