BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Facebook whistleblower is one person who handed over documents about one company, but earlier this week, news outlets around the world began publishing findings from another leak. An enormous one. One that exposes an entire shadow economy.
NEWS REPORT It's a bombshell report based on the biggest leak of offshore banking data in history.
NEWS REPORT The Pandora papers a massive investigation of millions of leaked documents from offshore bank accounts detailing how some of the world's wealthy, from rule leader to celebrities, hide their assets from authorities and tax collectors.
NEWS REPORT Kings, presidents, prime ministers, former prime ministers. [END MONTAGE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The names of hundreds of public figures have been disclosed, with more names to come from 91 countries. Cultural figures, fugitives, con artists, murderers, 35 past and present world leaders. Over 600 journalists are working together to sift through them.
NEWS REPORT The documents were first obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. They include nearly 12 million financial records related to more than 29,000 offshore accounts. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gerard Ryle is the director of the ICJ. Welcome back to the show.
GERARD RYLE Thank you. Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, five years ago, we spoke about the last huge global reporting project that you directed: the Panama Papers. This week ICIJ launched the Pandora papers in partnership with – what around 150 media partners worldwide? And both of these projects involved an unprecedented collaboration among journalists, and both revealed how massive amounts of money are secretly moved through offshore accounts. So, can you compare this project, Pandora to the Panama Papers?
GERARD RYLE Well, the Panama Papers was based on one offshore service provider in Panama called Mossack Fonseca. This is much more global. It actually involves 14 different service providers, so 14 different law firms and multiple jurisdictions around the world. And the names are bigger. 35 current and former world leaders, more than 330 politicians are elected officials and we're being very conservative in the numbers that we are publishing. We're pretty confident that you've always got twice as many politicians in there, that we're coming out with,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, stick with the Panama Papers for a moment longer. Did it affect legal changes that reflected how shady a lot of these financial dealings were? I mean, were you satisfied that the Panama Papers made a big enough impact?
GERARD RYLE Well, the impact was massive. I mean, you had the resignation of three world leaders in the end. I think there were 79 different inquiries in 79 different countries, afterwards. There were multiple changes to the law. Governments around the world recovered $1.4 billion in taxes. But what's interesting is that five years later, we're now finding that a lot of those changes that we were promised haven't had any real impact in what is really an artificial construct, this offshore world where people can go and play by different rules. The biggest revelation here is the hypocrisy that we're seeing from these world leaders, but you're also seeing the hypocrisy of the US. The US has acted as a sheriff in the world on this. They've required the Swiss bank accounts to be closed. They've required American citizens to declare all of their offshore holdings. It has pushed other countries to implement new laws to stop this happening, but what we're seeing with the Pandora papers is that the US itself has become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tax haven in the world and in particular places like South Dakota, where bad actors, people that have had misconduct charges against him. You know, sometimes politicians in other countries are now using trusts in South Dakota to hide their money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The ICIJ observed in its story on the Pandora papers that in the popular imagination, we think of the system as a far-flung cluster of palm shaded islands. But the offshore money machine operates in every corner of the planet, and the key players involved elite institutions, multinational banks, law firms and accounting practices headquartered in the U.S. and Europe. You mentioned South Dakota. We have places like Delaware where secrecy in finances seems to be its byword. What sort of banks and law firms and accounting firms are key players in this?
GERARD RYLE Every household name that you can think of, every bank on the high street, every major accounting firm that comes to mind is involved in this. We have revealed the secrets of 14 of these offshore law firms, but they are really small players, there are the middlemen because the clients are coming from London, they're coming from Russia, we're looking at the looting of Africa. I mean, it's really very global. You know, one of the biggest findings here is that the people that could be doing something about this and the countries like the US could be doing something about this or actually benefiting from it. So it probably goes some way to explaining why after five years after the Panama Papers happened, we're really just seeing another level of sophistication. We're not actually seeing any real change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that investigative reporting is all about finding patterns, not about finding something once, but over and over again. You were dealing with nearly 12 million confidential files, hundreds of reporters. How did people know what to look for, what to find, what to share?
GERARD RYLE We basically have a system that allows us to ingest millions of documents and make those documents available, all of the documents available to all of the reporters who are on the project. So they can go into our system, it's all password protected, and then they can search. Most reporters would start typing in the leaders of their country. We, in fact, did find some leaders like Donald Trump that there were a lot of documents to do with the Trump Corporation because one of the firms that we had was a Panamanian firm and it was the law firm that the Trump Corporation used in Panama. Obviously, we're quite excited about that at the beginning, but there really wasn't anything in there. It was-- it was quite dull material. But again, it's by way of example. You start off looking for what you want to find and then you realized you've got to let their documents talk to you. You've got to follow what the documents have, not what you went in there hoping to find.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's like dropping somebody on a, on a planet and saying, just let the planet show you where to go. I mean, it was planet sized quantities of documents. I can understand throwing spaghetti at the wall. You plug in the world leaders name into the search engine and hope that that person pops up. But how do you let the documents talk to you
GERARD RYLE By collaborating. We have invented almost this new way of working as investigative reporters. And traditionally we are lone wolves, and we don't share information. When you're trying to tackle 12 million documents and to give you a sense of that, like, we only counted one document, whereas in fact, some of the documents ran to thousands of pages. So again, you're talking about nearly 100 million actual or more than 100 million actual pages. You could never possibly read them all and understand, and you had to collaborate with your fellow reporters. And that's what we do at ICIJ. We bring teams of reporters from around the world together,
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, as far as you're concerned, we just don't need offshore accounts. They don't serve any purpose except to provide secrecy and tax evasion.
GERARD RYLE There is simply one product for sale here, and that is secrecy. Because we've now been doing these stories for almost a decade. We can see no real reason for any of this world to exist. We're seeing very clearly in the Pandora papers that the people that could be fixing this are the ones that are benefiting, so there's been no incentive for them to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ah, yes. You've observed that the minute reporters come and question practices, the practices are merely changed, but the corruption that they support remains.
GERARD RYLE Look, I learned this a long time ago as a reporter when I was investigating police corruption. And every time you reveal something new, we found basically that the corruption just became more sophisticated. That's what we're observing again in the offshore world. Every time we reveal something like this, the next time we come back to it, they've just got more careful. And in fact, there were some really hilarious moments for the reporters investigating this because we were able to see what these firms were doing after we published the Panama Papers. We saw the clients moving to new firms. We saw the clients asking 'Whatever you do, please, you've got to keep my identity secret. We don't want another Panama Papers to happen.' And of course, you know, to be able to read that was quite amusing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've been doing this for 9 years, what drives you to keep going?
GERARD RYLE Well, I think the best journalism has to be relentless journalism. People in power have got an opportunity to fix this. And until you constantly embarrass them, they're just going to pretend they're fixing it. A little bit like what happened after Panama Papers. They all said, 'Oh, this is all fixed now.' Clearly, it isn't. Clearly here is the evidence that it's still broken.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gerard Ryle is the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Thank you very much.
GERARD RYLE You're very welcome. Thanks, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.