Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

Panama Papers: meet the Woodward and Bernstein of our generation

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We are here with the two journalists who have been credited with breaking the biggest scoop of the 21st century. Bastian Obermayer and Gerard Riley have been hailed as the Woodward and Bernstein of this generation after they uncovered this biggest data leak in history with the Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers revealed just how extensive tax avoidance and tax evasion have become with world leaders, dignitaries and public officials all across the world implicated. The investigation involved 11 million files and 370 journalists in over 70 countries.

Gerard Ryle is the president of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and Bastian Obermayer is a journalist from German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. 

Miriam begins with the beginning: “Where did this story begin? Tell us the narrative.”

“I got a message one night from a person I didn’t know who said ‘I have a bunch of data would you want it?’ I said yes, but everyone was sick in my house at the time so I was delivering tea and cleaning up vomit messes, and trying to by nice to this anonymous source, who has remained anonymous until this day. The person said their life was in danger, and it turned it out that was probably true.”

 

“All of these documents came from Mossack Fonseca, who deal with offshore accounts and facilitating them. They were notorious, we’d looked into them before with the Luxleaks. We were interested in knowing would the media have interest in yet another offshore accounts story? But the data and documents kept coming in and it was clear this was going to be a big big story.”

“I mean 11.5 million documents. We saw really early that there were leads to many countries in Africa, Latin America, and that it was going to be big,” Bastian says.

Gerard explains how Bastian approached him once the volume of the data and documents made it clear it would take a large global team of journalists to get sift through it. Gerard says he then went about getting a team together._MCX8133

“We’d built trust with various media in the world. It was very important to trust different media organisations. We needed more journalists from more countries to help us with the investigation. We got for instance Iceland on board very early on as there were a lot of Icelandic names, and we ended up getting a journalist we didn’t know, but that our Swedish colleagues said we could trust. He’d actually applied to be an ISIJ member before but I hadn’t got back to him!” Gerard admits.

“We engineered the documents so that all the journalists could access the data and the documents. The problem was that Bastian kept coming with more and more documents. What was the difference with this? There had been leaks in the past but nothing that tracked everything on this day-to-day scale,” Gerard concludes.

“How did you verify it?” Miriam asks.

We did a lot of cross checks Bastian says.

Miriam wonders how was it possible for the enormous team to not spill the beans on the story.

 

“We had one rule for the 400 people,” Bastian says.”Shut up and encrypt.”

“I thought that we’d lose some of the big stories, but we didn’t,” Bastian says, admitting it was quite incredible.

Gerard says how working on the Panama Papers coloured the way they viewed current affairs and breaking news stories that they were already somewhat privy to. “There was a lot of things in the Panama Papers that shed light on current affairs issues that were happening that we knew about but that we had to keep quiet about.”

 

 

“How nervous were you the night before it was published?” Miriam asks.

“I was very nervous,” Bastian admits. “I had this secret with me for a year, I was also publishing my book, but then it happened and Edward Snowden retweeted us. Someone was screaming that Edward Snowden had seen it. But we hadn’t published yet! Apparently the online team had published it for 30 minutes online in order to fix a bug in the online version of the story and in that time Snowden had seen it!”

“I was in a BBC studio to be on air for the time when it would be published,” Gerard says.

“There was a weird atmosphere and later I found out that some of the lawyers wanted to pull the story. So I was very very nervous.”

Miriam asks them if the revelations in the Panama Papers depressed them?

Bastian: “No it didn’t depress me. I knew about offshore accounts, there are some really bad people in the world, dictators and their children etc. You get a natural high from revealing these stories, finding all these people, I was very happy actually!”_MCX8111

 

“There were so many Icelandic people in those papers, we were wondering who are these poor Icelandic people who aren’t in the Panama Papers! Our Icelandic colleague was particularly nervous, and he ended up being the journalist to force the prime minister to resign,” Bastian says.

Gerard reflects on what the impact of the Panama Papers is going to be and the importance of an institution like the ISIJ. “I think a lot of what we’re doing is a sea change for journalism and I think we’re going to do the type of journalism we did for the Panama Papers more and more. There is a move towards not letting stories out. In Ireland particularly.”

“I never thought we could change people’s behaviour, I don’t think that is possible. We limit the opportunities for those who don’t want to behave themselves. You can limit the opportunities for rich people to hide money,” Bastian concludes.