What do you do if you had to figure out the information behind 11.5 million documents, verify it and make sense of it? That was a challenge that a group of journalists had to face late last year. An anonymous person calling himself John Doe had somehow managed to copy nearly 40 years of records of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. This is one of many firms around the world that specialize in setting up accounts in offshore tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, for rich and powerful people who like to keep secrets.
John Doe had managed to copy every spreadsheet from this firm, every client file, every email, from 1977 to the present day. It represented the biggest cache of inside information into the tax haven system that anyone had ever seen. But it also presented a gigantic challenge to investigative journalism. Think about it: 11.5 million documents, containing the secrets of people from more than 200 different countries. Where do you start with such a vast resource? Where do you even begin to tell a story that can trail off into every corner of the globe, and that can affect almost any person in any language, sometimes in ways they don't even know yet.
John Doe had given the information to two journalists at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. He said he was motivated by — and I quote — "The scale of the injustice that the documents would reveal." But one user alone can never make sense of such a vast amount of information. So the Süddeutsche Zeitung reached out to my organization in Washington, DC, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. We decided to do something that was the very opposite of everything we'd been taught to do as journalists: share.
By nature, investigative reporters are lone wolves. We fiercely guard our secrets, at times even from our editors, because we know that the moment we tell them what we have, they'll want that story right away. And to be frank, when you get a good story, you like to keep the glory to yourself.
But there's no doubt that we live in a shrinking world, and that the media has largely been slow to wake up to this. The issues we report on are more and more transnational. Giant corporations operate on a global level. Environmental and health crises are global. So, too, are financial flows and financial crises. So it seems staggering that journalism has been so late to cover stories in a truly global way. And it also seems staggering that journalism has been so slow to wake up to the possibilities that technology brings, rather than being frightened of it. The reason journalists are scared of technology is this: the profession's largest institutions are going through tough times because of the changing way that people are consuming news. The advertising business models that have sustained reporting are broken. And this has plunged journalism into crisis, forcing those institutions to reexamine how they function.
But where there is crisis, there is also opportunity. The first challenge presented by what would eventually become known as the Panama Papers was to make the documents searchable and readable. There were nearly five million emails, two million PDFs that needed to be scanned and indexed, and millions more files and other kinds of documents. They all needed to be housed in a safe and secure location in the cloud. We next invited reporters to have a look at the documents. In all, reporters from more than 100 media organizations in 76 countries — from the BBC in Britain to Le Monde newspaper in France to the Asahi Shimbun in Japan. "Native eyes on native names," we called it, the idea being, who best to tell you who was important to Nigeria than a Nigerian journalist? Who best in Canada than a Canadian? There were only two rules for everyone who was invited: we all agreed to share everything that we found with everybody else, and we all agreed to publish together on the same day.
We chose our media partners based on trust that had been built up through previous smaller collaborations and also from leads that jumped out from the documents. Over the next few months, my small nonprofit organization of less than 20 people was joined by more than 350 other reporters from 25 language groups. The biggest information leak in history had now spawned the biggest journalism collaboration in history: 376 sets of native eyes doing what journalists normally never do, working shoulder to shoulder, sharing information, but telling no one. For it became clear at this point that in order to make the biggest kind of noise, we first needed the biggest kind of silence.
To manage the project over the many months it would take, we built a secure virtual newsroom. We used encrypted communication systems, and we built a specially designed search engine. Inside the virtual newsroom, the reporters could gather around the themes that were emerging from the documents. Those interested in blood diamonds or exotic art, for instance, could share information about how the offshore world was being used to hide the trade in both of those commodities. Those interested in sport could share information about how famous sports stars were putting their image rights into offshore companies, thereby likely avoiding taxes in the countries where they plied their trade.
But perhaps most exciting of all were the number of world leaders and elect politicians that were emerging from the documents — figures like Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, close associates of Vladimir Putin in Russia and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who is linked through his late father, Ian Cameron.
Buried in the documents were secret offshore entities, such as Wintris Inc., a company in the British Virgin Islands that had actually belonged to the sitting Icelandic prime minister. I like to refer to Johannes Kristjansson, the Icelandic reporter we invited to join the project, as the loneliest man in the world. For nine months, he refused paid work and lived off the earnings of his wife. He pasted tarps over the windows of his home to prevent prying eyes during the long Icelandic winter. And he soon ran out of excuses to explain his many absences, as he worked red-eyed, night after night, month after month. In all that time, he sat on information that would eventually bring down the leader of his country.
Now, when you're an investigative reporter and you make an amazing discovery, such as your prime minster can be linked to a secret offshore company, that that company has a financial interest in Icelandic banks — the very issue he's been elected on — well, your instinct is to scream out very loud. Instead, as one of the few people that he could speak to, Johannes and I shared a kind of gallows humor. "Wintris is coming," he used to say.
We were big fans of "Game of Thrones."
When reporters like Johannes wanted to scream, they did so inside the virtual newsroom, and then they turned those screams into stories by going outside the documents to court records, official company registers, and by eventually putting questions to those that we intended to name. Panama Papers actually allowed the reporters to look at the world through a different lens from everybody else.
As we were researching the story, unconnected to us, a major political bribery scandal happened in Brazil. A new leader was elected in Argentina. The FBI began to indict officials at FIFA, the organization that controls the world of professional soccer. The Panama Papers actually had unique insights into each one of these unfolding events. So you can imagine the pressure and the ego dramas that could have ruined what we were trying to do. Any of one of these journalists, they could have broken the pact. But they didn't. And on April 3 this year, at exactly 8pm German time, we published simultaneously in 76 countries.
The Panama Papers quickly became one of the biggest stories of the year. This is the scene in Iceland the day after we published. It was the first of many protests. The Icelandic prime minister had to resign. It was a first of many resignations. We spotlighted many famous people such as Lionel Messi, the most famous soccer player in the world. And there were some unintended consequences. These alleged members of a Mexican drug cartel were arrested after we published details about their hideout. They'd been using the address to register their offshore company.
There's a kind of irony in what we've been able to do. The technology — the Internet — that has broken the business model is allowing us to reinvent journalism itself. And this dynamic is producing unprecedented levels of transparency and impact. We showed how a group of journalists can effect change across the world by applying new methods and old-fashioned journalism techniques to vast amounts of leaked information. We put all-important context around what was given to us by John Doe. And by sharing resources, we were able to dig deep — much deeper and longer than most media organizations allow these days, because of financial concerns.
Now, it was a big risk, and it wouldn't work for every story, but we showed with the Panama Papers that you can write about any country from just about anywhere, and then choose your preferred battleground to defend your work. Try obtaining a court injunction that would prevent the telling of a story in 76 different countries. Try stopping the inevitable.
Shortly after we published, I got a three-word text from Johannes: "Wintris has arrived."
It had arrived and so, too, perhaps has a new era for journalism.
Bruno Giussani: Gerard, thank you.
I guess you're going to send that applause to the 350 journalists who worked with you, right?
Now, a couple of questions I would like to ask. The first one is, you'd been working in secrecy for over a year with 350-something colleagues from all over the world — was there ever a moment when you thought that the leak may be leaked, that the collaboration may just be broken by somebody publishing a story? Or somebody not in the group releasing some information that they got to know?
Gerard Ryle: We had a series of crises along the way, including when something major was happening in the world, the journalists from that country wanted to publish right away. We had to calm them down. Probably the biggest crisis we had was a week before publication. We'd sent a series of questions to the associates of Vladimir Putin, but instead of responding, the Kremlin actually held a press conference and denounced us, and denounced the whole thing as being, I guess, a plot from the West. At that point, Putin thought it was just about him. And, of course, a lot of editors around the world were very nervous about this. They thought the story was going to get out. You can imagine the amount of time they'd spent, the amount of resources, money spent on this. So I had to basically spend the last week calming everyone down, a bit like a general, where you're holding your troops back: "Calm, remain calm." And then eventually, of course, they all did.
BG: And then a couple weeks ago or so, you released a lot of the documents as an open database for everybody to search via keyword, essentially.
GR: We very much believe that the basic information about the offshore world should be made public. Now, we didn't publish the underlying documents of the journalists we're working with. But the basic information such as the name of a person, what their offshore company was and the name of that company, is now all available online. In fact, the biggest resource of its kind basically is out there now
BG: Gerard, thank you for the work you do.
GR: Thank you.