The Panama Papers and the Unaccountability of ‘Responsible’ Journalism

By making leaked documents – with careful and specifically justified redactions – available in searchable form to journalists and the general public, Wikileaks set a new standard for journalistic ethics and transparency, allowing for a new level of accountability in journalism. Whereas previously, readers were given no practicable way to verify journalists’ claims about the content of source documents or to determine for themselves whether significant matters were being omitted from reporting, databases like Wikileaks’ Public Library of US Diplomacy allowed any independent researcher with an internet connection to search for documents on a particular subject in the collection.

It is a standard that major corporate media have openly resented, even as they have monetised its fruits. This is the context in which we should examine the position of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on the Panama Papers.

This week, various major media outlets worldwide, including Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (controlled via various holding companies by Dieter Schaub, no. 120 on the 2015 Manager Magazin list of the 500 richest Germans, and the family of Eberhard Ebner, no. 450 on the same list) and the UK Guardian (controlled by the misleadingly named Scott Trust Ltd), in conjunction with the ICIJ (funded by a variety of largely US-based foundations), began reporting on a collection of over 11 million documents leaked from Mossback Fonseca, a Panama-based international law firm specialising in money laundering and tax evasion. The initial reporting read like a Who’s Who of Washington’s official enemies, from Putin and Assad to north Korea, as well as Iceland, a country that has irked the powerful by actually putting some of the bankers responsible for the Global Financial Crisis in prison.

This bias raised more than a few eyebrows in a public now accustomed to a higher standard of journalistic accountability, and an ongoing Wikileaks poll has thus far received over 80,000 votes (an overwhelming majority) in favour of making the Panama Papers source material available for independent research.

The ICIJ, meanwhile, has stated that they have no intention of allowing independent research on such important source material. In the words of ICIJ director Gerald Ryle, ‘We’re not Wikileaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly‘, by allowing affiliated corporate media outlets to decide ‘what’s in the public interest’ for their respective countries. The source material could not be made available for independent research even with Wikileaks-style redactions, the ICIJ director argued, because to do so would put ‘innocent private individuals’ at risk.

At first glance, Ryle’s choice of words may seem a bit odd. What, after all, is responsibility without accountability? How are we meant to accept the ICIJ’s claim to be acting ‘responsibly’ and in the ‘public interest’ when the ICIJ refuse to provide access to the only evidence that would allow anyone to assess that claim independently? And, indeed, how are we to credit the ICIJ’s declaration that certain unidentified classes of private individuals are ‘innocent’ without any means of verification?

The answer, of course, is that we are meant to believe these claims uncritically. If ICIJ-approved news outlets don’t mention a person in conjunction with the Panama Papers, we are meant to take it on faith that such persons are either not mentioned in the documents or, if they are mentioned, that they are somehow ‘innocent’. We are certainly not meant to wonder how innocent someone can actually be if they’ve had dealings with a bunch of international money launderers, nor are we meant to question whether media corporations might be reluctant to tell us that their owners are mentioned. In short, we are to forget Wikileaks ever happened and go back to the days when media corporations could publish and omit what they pleased about leaked documents, and when no one ever expected to be able to examine the source material for themselves.

This peculiar use of the term responsible has a long tradition. Ever since a rhetorical commitment to egalitarian and democratic values became a regrettable necessity even for those committed to undermining them, responsible has taken the place of such phrases as men of better quality in order to designate the ‘natural’ superiors whose judgment it is not our place to question. Responsibility in this usage not only does not require transparency and accountability  – it is their polar opposite.

Can the Wikileaks bell be unrung? The ‘responsible’ journos of the ICIJ and its associates certainly hope so. That is why we are incessantly told that the Panama Papers ‘eclipse’ the Wikileaks and Snowden revelations based on nothing more than their size – i.e., in much the same way that Birmingham ‘eclipses’ Venice in terms of sheer canal mileage – as if the mere volume of documentation could meaningfully eclipse the fact that unaccountable institutions are selectively drip-feeding a public that has become accustomed to a higher standard of journalism.

If we do not wish to return to pre-Wikileaks standards of journalistic (un)accountability, we must be relentless in demanding full disclosure. Given that the Australian government (and thus, most likely, the rest of the Five Eyes states) already has the full set of documents, the claim that this disclosure would compromise sources and the ‘innocent’ simply does not hold water. The ICIJ must be made to see that the credibility of the Panama Papers reporting will forever be under a cloud until they comply with post-Wikileaks, post-Snowden standards of transparency and accountability. Until then, the Panama Papers will be little more than a distraction.

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