BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
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The week began with a dose of media coup déjà vu.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now a new series of investigations reveals the offshore financial dealings of some of the world's wealthiest people and biggest corporations. The stories are tied to what's being called the “Paradise Papers.”
BOB GARFIELD: No, not the Panama Papers. That was last year's massive leak that exposed tax dodges by corporations and rich individuals through offshore accounts. The Paradise Papers are a much bigger trove of documents that revealed even more rich people avoiding even more taxes, $9 trillion in taxes, it’s estimated. Oh, plus this little nugget.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One of many investigations getting a lot of attention, the investments of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Ross kept a stake in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings after he became Secretary. One of Navigator’s top clients is the Russian energy company Sibur, whose owners include Vladimir Putin's son-in-law and Kremlin-linked oligarchs on the US Sanctions list.
BOB GARFIELD: To be clear, this is not an allegation of wrongdoing but proof that the superrich get to play by a different set of rules. As President Trump’s chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, put it.
GARY COHN, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL DIRECTOR: This is the way that the world works.
BOB GARFIELD: Just not for you.
Marina Walker Guevara is the deputy director for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has just published the Paradise Papers. Marina, welcome to the show.
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Hi, Bob. Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: We often talk about journalism shining a light in dark places of criminality, corruption and abuse. The Paradise Papers seems more like a case of shining a light in dark places of legality. No immediate signs of criminal activity here, right?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Exactly, a lot of these structures are legal, and that is the biggest scandal and the biggest revelation, that in 2017 a vast portion of our economic life occurs in secret, stashed away in little islands in the Caribbean, in the Pacific Ocean, not only skirting taxation but also regulation.
BOB GARFIELD: If it’s all legal and above board, why all of the secrecy? Why doesn't Queen Elizabeth want to know that she's got part of her fortune stashed in the Caribbean?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Perhaps one of the reasons why the state of Queen Elizabeth didn't want to do these kinds of transactions in Britain, as opposed to a tax haven, was because one of the investments they were using was in a company accused of preying on poor people.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, it was a rent-to-own company that charges poor people large monthly fees to rent furniture or a television set, and they end up paying huge premiums over the actual value.
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Yes, exactly, predatory lending. And usually what public figures are doing in the secret world of offshore tax havens, it's completely at odds with their public image in the real world, and this leak peels away that public image.
BOB GARFIELD: Included in this recent dump you find members of the Trump administration, including Gary Cohn, the chief economic advisor to the President, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross squirreling money away offshore. You have Kremlin money, by way of billionaire Yuri Milner, some of which was used to buy stakes in Twitter and Facebook. These are eye-openers at this particular political moment [LAUGHS] in the United States. What kind of follow-up will there be for these nuggets of information?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: What is interesting is that when Wilbur Ross became commerce secretary he divested off a lot of his companies and he was praised in his confirmation hearing for doing so, but he kept nine companies and four of those nine companies are the ones that connect him with the Kremlin.
In the case of Yuri Milner, we knew that he had invested heavily in Facebook and in Twitter. What we didn't know and what these documents reveal is that for those investments he had significant backing from financial institutions and banks that are owned by the Russian government and that are widely considered to be instruments of the Kremlin for their own strategic purposes. There is no evidence in these documents that the Kremlin was using Yuri Milner for strategic purposes, but we have to look at the current political climate, the context of what is going on.
BOB GARFIELD: Forgive me for paraphrasing but as I look at the stories that have emerged and of the responses from the principals named within them, the reaction from the Wilbur Rosses and Gary Cohns of the world is approximately, yeah, so? You’ve caught me observing the law.
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: In the case of Gary Cohn, it’s interesting because his offshore connections have to do with his past as an executive at Goldman Sachs. And what he says is like, this is how the world works. And my question to him is, if this is how the world works in which multinational companies
and wealthy individuals can go offshore and get their taxes cut to virtually zero, what money are you going to use in the new administration to pay for the infrastructure, the hospitals, the schools, the roads and more that you have promised the American people?
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so I’m going to assume that these records came into your hands because somebody in the Caribbean leaked them to you, a gigantic data dump. What is the process of looking at all of these corporate entities and the transactions between them and then actually seeing any of these pictures emerge with famous names and faces attached to them?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Well, it’s been a year-long process. We activated the same network that we had used in the Panama Papers but we realized that we needed to expand it and we needed to have people in places that we hadn’t needed before, like Turkey, for example. These leaks are chaotic when they first arrive. The biggest challenge was to put it in a readable format, in a platform where you can do searches like if you were searching in Google, so our partners anywhere in the world can be searching the documents at the same time for people and companies of interest to their countries.
We also want those reporters to be talking to one another, so we provide a platform that looks a little bit like a social media wall, and that's where all the activity and the sharing and the frustration of the searches and the reporting takes place.
BOB GARFIELD: I could not help but notice that one of your journalistic collaborators this time around was The New York Times, which was conspicuously not in the consortium for the Panama Papers. What changed?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: I think they changed. The New York Times came to us after the Panama Papers and they requested access, and we gave it to them, and they told us, if anything else comes forward, we would love to be included and we want to have this experience of a global collaboration. So we took them on their offer and we said, we don't want your stars, we want the best team players that you've got. And they delivered on that, and you can see it in, in the front pages of this week.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to ask about how these stories have been spooled out. It seems, as with the Panama Papers, the revelations are coming out a little bit at a time. Is that a marketing strategy to maintain interest?
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Well, when you have 382 reporters from more than 90 media organizations working in silence for more than a year, writing their stories, reporting, researching, there's a lot of stories. These are 13-1/2 million records and we are probably only scratching the surface. What you are seeing is the carefully planned rollout of stories. Sports figures and celebrities are in the data. We are not telling those stories first. Let’s tell first the stories of elected officials, multinationals, and then we’ll roll out all the rest of the stories.
BOB GARFIELD: I think the instincts of the public and even of newsrooms is to look for the juiciest tidbit, the most infuriating corruption, the most high-profile misconduct. And so far, the Paradise Papers have not really yielded a whole lot of that.
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: I think if we are not infuriated when we see that a company like Apple that had been cracked down on for its abusive tax-avoidance strategies goes on and does exactly the same two or three years later, maybe that's something that we have to think as a society, are we okay with the wealthiest escaping our rules?
What we now hope is that people will make the connection between the stories they are reading about hypocrisy and conflicts of interest and secrecy and their own lives, and when they read those stories and they wonder who is the victim here, that they can quickly realize that the victim is -- them.
BOB GARFIELD: Marina, thank you very much.
MARINA WALKER GUEVARA: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Marina Walker is the deputy director for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.