By Costas Efimeros
Panama Papers were described as “the revelation of the century” and “the biggest leak in history”. 11.5 million documents of Mossack Fonseca, the 4th biggest law firm providing services concerning the incorporation of offshore entities. Based on facts, which came from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), global media started a series of impressive revelations. Still the biggest one is yet to be seen. Should things stay like that, we might be witnesses of the end of journalism as we know it today
As you read these lines, revealing stories about the Panama Leaks are written all around the world, but allow me to rush and make a bold assertion: Panama Papers are the last chance of journalism “to become global”. If it doesn’t the future will be completely different.
The historical framework of reporting
There have always been big stories. From the time newspapers were printed in a few copies and read out loud in coffee shops to today’s journalistic multitude, a code of conduct has taken shape, and, on several occasions, even defined the course of history. However, today it feels like journalism has lost its mission. Some of the biggest newspapers are shutting down due to circulation decline; the same will happen with TV stations, even though everybody in that industry refuses to admit it. The web and social media impose a new mindset and devices will ultimately define the content.
Readers passed from reading a broadsheet newspaper in tabloid to huge black and white screens and then 5” cell phones. The web is possessed by Google, which serves the results you want to read surrounded by advertisements of products you want to buy. Despite the infinite knowledge hovering online, users get access to less content with smaller texts and now breaking news and reflex journalism is concentrated in 140 characters for Twitter.
Mainstream media shrink their journalistic teams while increasing the staff of commercial departments. Big investigations only last a few days and journalists censor themselves and are aware of damaging the interests of companies who are advertised in their media outlets. Stories go through new kinds of legal checks which don’t aim at the proper documentation of every element of the story but the elimination of every potentially “dangerous” claim. Lawsuits for slander and claims for skyrocketing compensations (often of biggest value than the entire medium) become a huge iron ball, chained at the feet of journalists who hope that no one will push them into the sea.
Luke Harding, a journalist-member of the ICIJ wrote about the Panama Papers: “In a time when resources are being cut in the newsrooms, I think that this model of international collaboration is the way forward.”
What journalism is (supposed to be)?
During the past years, investigative journalism has changed. Pioneered by WikiLeaks, whistle-blowing has transformed from a lonely activity to a new kind of publication. From CableGate, to LuxLeaks, then to SwissLeaks and the revelations of Chelsea Manning, from Edward Snowden, Herve Falciani and Carmen Segara, today we arrived at the Panama Papers.
Therefore my argument is that, this time the data we (supposedly) have in our hands offers a unique chance –maybe the last one– to rescue the reputation of traditional journalism for a very simple reason, based on a simple premise:
A revelation has some potential only if it affects the society to which it refers. The word “scandal” means “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage”. In other words, a scandal does not refer merely to the action itself but to the outrage of public opinion as a reaction to said action. If the revelation of secret state and private abuses does not provoke outrage, if those responsible remain unpunished or if their penalties do not satisfy the demand for justice, then the continuous revelation of scandals has the exact opposite result: defeatism, the feeling of weakness, the fatalistic acceptance of the rule of the powerful.
During the past years, traditional journalism has been systematically failing to address what is right, to express the public interest, to lead to a catharsis in the sense of ancient Greek tragedy. In effect, as the flagrant impunity of those involved in continuously bigger scandals increases, the consolidation of the inability of society against its oppressors augments as well.
Mass media has played an important role in the degradation of their mission. Whoever brings forth spectacular stories of no substance in order to increase viewership; publishes unsubstantiated stories to satisfy the thirst of the public, whoever reports on important stories in a negligent way, supposedly for swiftness; reveals small fractions of a story failing to see the bigger picture, actively participates to the degradation of journalism. The role of the reporter is important to the progress of society and this seems to be forgotten by more and more people.
The journalist should investigate, process, document, analyze and then publish. The order and integrity of each step should always be kept to the absolute degree. Stories must be treated as living organisms. Society’s reaction must be recorded, the reaction of the affected must be solicited, every aspect of the story must be expanded. It goes without saying that mistakes must closely monitored and corrected. Journalist must insist and follow up. No story is successful if it dies without making an impact, and by impact I do not mean communicational success. Institutional response, change of regulatory frameworks, conviction of those responsible, legislation alteration, new rules are not just legitimate goals; this is the very essence of a story itself. The publication of investigative journalism must leave a footprint on society in the same way a judgment creates jurisprudence for future similar cases.
All of this should be indisputable.
Why the Panama Papers revelation is different
The Panama Papers revelation differs radically from any other massive leak until today. For the first time, the data are not the picture of a moment. They allow for the systematic and analytical research of the economic model and its evolution during the past 50 years. The leak consists of 11.5 million documents dating from 1977 until the final days of 2015 and so for the first time (supposedly) we have at our disposal all the necessary tools to reveal a true global conspiracy: that of the rich at the expense of the poor.
And what else is journalism if not a service to the interests of the many against the interests of the few?
The Panama Papers can outline the grid of the cooperation between law firms, governments and institutions, and demonstrate the manual of a global mechanism which provides the tools, through regulatory authorities, so that the richer can live in a globalized market where they do not have to conform to the constitutional requirement of proportionality.
Official figures show that currently 1% of the world population owns as much wealth as the remaining 99%. The Panama Papers come to dispel this myth by explaining that the 1% hides just as much under offshore schemes.
Just like a war correspondent is moving towards the fire zone as civilians flee from it, the Panama Records can be used as a journalistic clew of Ariadne, which instead of showing the exit, will end up at the formidable Minotaur that is the systemic corruption of market economy.
Something old, something new, something blue
On November 1, 2010 at noon, at the office of Alan Rusbridger, inside the building of the British Guardian in London, the first massive clash between the “old” and the “new” journalism happened. It was the day Julian Assange broke the links between Wikileaks and traditional media. Until that point, the brilliant organization of the Australian, waving the flag for transparency with the motto “we open governments” was under the illusion that cooperation with media dinosaurs would work mutually beneficially.
Rusbridger claims that Assange threatened to sue him that day, in case he published other parts of CableGate, other than the originally agreed upon. A few days before, a leak of the leaks had given Guardian the opportunity to say that it had the telegraphs of the American embassies also from another source and therefore it was no longer bound by its agreement with the Wikileaks. On the other hand, Julian Assange, in a conversation we had a little time ago, explained to me that the journalists of the British newspaper were stalling publications and censoring the cables to such an extent that the essence of the revelations were altered.
Wikileaks has matured since then. It has changed its strategy and its new dogma includes full disclosure knowing that if someone controls the flow of the information, in reality, they find themselves at the same ethical level as someone who hides information. That was precisely my strong disagreement with Wikileaks when back in the elections year 2012, Alexis Papahelas handled the publication of the Greek part of Cable Gate through his TV show “Neoi Fakeloi” (New Folders). He held documents that, depending on the timing of their publication, could affect the election results. Finally, Wikileaks decided to publish all the GableGate and then we learnt that Alexis Papahelas show had been receiving instructions from the American Embassy on how to report in order to better promote American positions.
ICIJ follows again the wrong strategy about the publication of Panama Papers. It chooses mainstream media which undertake the processing of an immense amount of material and allows selective publication through them. Due to that, it has been justifiably noted that cases referring to the United States seem to be hugely disproportionally few, while stories which strengthen the western view of the world are highlighted. The scandals are presented by systemic media in the usual fashion: as the efforts of some evil, greedy capitalists who did not respect the holy law of the markets and sought to exploit the system for their own benefit.
Regardless of all that, the infographic provided by Wikileaks (proving it has also access to the same data) clarifies right away that the Panama Papers are about something bigger; the scandal is the system itself. How else can someone interpret that, from the mere counting of offshore entities it is found that the web spreads over more than 200 countries and jurisdictions, when the planet has only 193 states according to the United Nations?
In the movie Matrix, Morpheus gives a choice to Neo between a red and a blue pill. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes” he says. Systemic media seem to have chosen the blue pill.
Yet the future is at stake
My personal view is that the only way to rescue the journalism which provides investigations, revelations and deep analysis, is to create a new code of conduct which will be in alignment with the new conditions.
The code of conduct on which traditional journalism is based, was formed gradually over the centuries but is now unable to respond to reality. Twenty years ago, the revelation of a scandal required personal research and visiting libraries. Today 11.5 million documents can be transferred in a hard drive from the one side of the planet to the other. They can be processed massively and algorithmically in a few hours. Personally I believe that ICIJ is making a huge mistake even if its motives are pure. In 2016, every member should be committed to comprehensive and full publication of the parts that they undertook to investigate. Only that commitment can safeguard the integrity of the revelation.
Journalism has to make a comeback; it has to combine the dynamism and moral superiority of the transparency Wikileaks is introducing, with the established values of documentation of traditional journalism. The distance has to be covered by traditional journalism -ICIJ included- and not Wikileaks. Only the coordinated action of these organizations can offer the opportunity to control and document or refute the theory that I believe; that Panama Papers can map the structural corruption of the markets.
The inherent problem, though, of this reasoning, is that mass media have been transformed by its owners and government agencies. Journalists behave like power addicts who only report against specific powerful individuals (without of course causing any problems to shareholders) and fail to focus on (or show any interest in) the big picture of a global conspiracy which benefits the few and mighty. Journalists fail to explain that Mossack Fonseca is not a bad element of the system but an element of a bad system.
In the end, the only hope left, is that Wikileaks and other organizations who believe in the same ideas, will grow with the help of the public to such a degree that they will have the resources of systemic media, in order to move forward with the necessary in depth analysis of the data. If neither finds the strength to make this step, a unique chance will be lost. A chance for journalism to prove the utility of real research compared to a tweet or an understandable piece. And this is only the lesser evil. The largest will be the embodiment of the absolute power of the world’s powerful to exploit the weaker members of society.
Unfortunately, the preconditions do not seem likely and that is why I fear that the Panama Papers will bring the end of traditional journalism.
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