Massive investigative journalism project probes offshore companies

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When I visited Gerard Ryle in Washington D.C. in January, he was lying on his office couch sick with a cold and tired from months of intensive work on a major project.

The director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists can this weekend take satisfaction in the impact the “Offshore” project – one of the largest international journalism collaborations in history,  has had around the world.

The stories have flooded the media in the last week – details of how the global power elite, senior government officials, wealthy businesspeople and even moderately wealthy professionals, have used offshore companies based in tax havens to amass assets, avoid tax and hide their wealth – with consequences for the financial health of entire countries.

Wikileaks-scale project

The project is comparable in scope to the Wikileaks release of the Afghan War Dairies and 250,000 sensitive US Government cables. But that was a collaboration between Wikileaks and three news outlets – The Guardian, the New York  Times and Der Spiegel.

The ICIJ project involved 86 journalists in 46 countries. heavily involved in the project is New Zealand investigative journalist and ICIJ affiliate, Nicky Hager, who in the Sunday Star Times today detailed some of the examples of New Zealanders using offshore companies in tax havens such as the Cook Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Nicky Hager's Star Times coverage

Nicky Hager’s Star Times coverage

As with the Wikileaks releases, crucial to this journalism project, was a leak of documents that otherwise would have been impossible to obtain. In the case of the ICIJ, the documents arrived on a hard drive sent anonymously through the mail. This is what every journalist dreams of – but the trove of data found its way to Gerard Ryle for a reason – he had, as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, undertaken a major investigation in into Firepower, a company pushing a mysterious fuel efficiency technology that attracted extensive investment but turned out to be a complete scam.

Big data mined

The 260 gigabytes of data obtained from that hard drive had to be processed, analyzed and interpreted, making the investigation a major exercise in data journalism. The ICIJ’s data experts had to contend with unstructured and hard to read data and used sophisticated software tools to make sense of the documents.

“This is not a data story,” ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Geuvara told Nieman Lab.

“It was based on a huge amount of data, but once you have the name and you look at your documents, you can’t just sit there and write a story,” says Walker Guevara. “That’s why we needed reporters on the ground. We needed people checking courthouse records. We needed people going and talking to experts in the field.”

This is exactly the type of project the ICIJ, which is based at the Center for Public Integrity in D.C., is set up for – large investigations that cross borders and require the type of collaboration that a single news outlet would struggle to handle on its own.

The ICIJ itself is a tiny organisation – 3 or four staff working with freelance affiliates across the world. It was funded to the tune of around $1.5 million in 2012. Most of its partners work for little in the way of financial reward – but benefit from being one of the partners that breaks the story in their own jurisdiction.

The legal bills the ICIJ racks up are large. In previous investigations, where they have investigated illegal fishing in the world’s oceans and the international trade in human tissues, they have come up against powerful companies and individuals unhappy at the scrutiny. Such investigations carry enough risk to have even veteran reporters sweating. Ryle has a letter on his wall from a content partner explaining why, just days before an investigation was to be released, it was pulling out of the project. The media outlet was worried about being sued. The project went ahead and the ICIJ has yet to be sued as it spent so much time carefully checking the facts.

The offshore companies project is exactly the sort of exposure the ICIJ needs to secure interest from philanthropic foundations for future investigations. It should also inspire local news outlets about the potential of these types of global collaborations.

Few New Zealand media organisations have the resources to undertake investigations relevant to New Zealand but involving other nations in the Asia Pacific region. However, collaborations like the ICIJ allow the load to be shared and maximise exposure when the investigations are released. As we turn further towards Asia economically, we need media partnerships throughout the region to tell the public interest stories that matter to us as well  as our neighbours.

Nieman Lab has an excellent piece detailing how the ICIJ investigation came together.

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