Collaboration across jurisdictions: why ICIJ won the Pulitzer Prize

In an industry landscape where newsrooms are shrinking, with funds for investigative reporting diminished, the ICIJ have fittingly won the Pulitzer for explanatory reporting. Their achievement demonstrates the value of cross-jurisdictional collaboration in financial reporting, and a ‘slow-burn’ approach to publishing which is exemplary and distinctive in our age. How was it possible that 400 journalists were able to analyze an anonymously leaked dataset in tandem, for more than a year in secret before going public?

"Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?"

-"We’re very interested."

"There are a couple of conditions. My life is in danger. We will only chat over encrypted files. No meeting, ever. The choice of stories is obviously up to you."

-"Why are you doing this?"

"I want to make these crimes public."

The conversation above depicts the first contact that Bastian Obermayer of Süddeutsch Zeitung had with the source of the Panama Papers Leaks, John Doe. The source reached out to Bastian and Frederik Obermaier after he’d noticed the journalist had written a story recently about Mossack Fonseca. When Suddeutsche Zeitung reached out to ICIJ, who signed up the BBC and the Guardian for further reporting, the project exploded. A journalistic project of massive scale, the ICIJ have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory reporting. The contribution that the ICIJ have been recognized for with this prestigious award is because of the scale of the reporting effort and the nature of the collaboration.

  • Involved collaboration of more than 300 reporters on six continents to expose the hidden infrastructure and global scale of offshore tax havens
  • Largest journalistic co-operation ever, involving over 100 media organisations
  • Revealed that the offshore system was far more extensive than previously understood
  • A third of the world’s prominent tax havens are UK jurisdictions
  • In China, censors blocked the words Panama Papers and jammed the Guardian website.

The award committee recognized the ICIJ for:

"a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, using any available journalistic tool"

How was this collaboration made possible?

Leak size is a common misrepresentation of the significance of the Panama Papers. Leak size is a technical challenge. The biggest leak does not necessarily yield the greatest possible insights. 2.6 terabytes of data is of course vast, and the leak size did have an effect on the nature of the collaboration. Many organisations could leak 11.5 million documents, but few of them could necessarily be consequential. The key figure was the 214,000 letterbox companies which provided the secrets of the ‘dirty money’. The leak represented nearly every document from the firm over a 40-year period, as ICIJ director Gerard Ryle told Wired.

In order to do this, Mar Cabra’s team created a virtual newsroom with two-factor-authentication encryption for news outlets, along with a chat system operating in real-time. Each day, each reporter working on the Panama Papers logged into the platform and shared whatever insights they had produced, even if they were unsure if it was relevant to their work. This allowed them to ensure they could crowdsource their skillsets, finding translations for unknown documents. Mar’s team also built a cloud-based search tool, so all of the documents could be accessible to every reporter. The Linkurious system produced every entity name and address into nodes, which enabled reporters to work backwards on the research. The publicly available database allowed stories to be crowdsourced, creating more financial journalists in the process. Helena Benegtsson of the Guardian provided extensive insights on UK property, owned by offshore companies by cross-matching with the database, alongside Juliet Garside. £170bn of UK property is now held overseas, and nearly one in 10 of the 31,000 tax haven companies that own British property are linked to Mossack Fonseca.

#PanamaPapers law firm sends mucho awkward letter to its elite and now busted clients. via @wikileaks @ChristopherJM — Paula Chertok🗽 (@PaulaChertok) April 3, 2016


Political fallout

Critically, the fallout from the Panama Papers was largely political. Mossack Fonseca were never sure of the end user of the companies - their clients were rarely considered to be the end user. The big accountancy firms and financial institutions were frequently the end user. In May, the US Treasury and Justice departments proposed a series of laws in response to the leaks to facilitate regulators tracking dirty money in and around the US. Europol found 3,469 probable matches in the Panama Leaks and their own files. Co-ordination of these stories allowed them to gain maximum attention - Putin’s offshores, followed by Cameron’s father and Blairmore holdings the next week. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign after failing to disclose his stakes in Icelandic banks, in a breach of regulations for officials.

Each participant will doubtless provide their own unique explanation, but John Doe’s’ motivation from the beginning offers the clearest indication of a guiding ethic; a shared acknowledgement that this system amounts to a crime against the public’s finances. This ethic resulted in the collaboration deviating from standard models. Journalists are traditionally precious about disclosing their sources (and their stories in turn), but challenging this structure required a different tact.

We offered the ICIJ a subscription to Arachnys Investigator, which they described as critical in the investigation:

"ICIJ’s Arachnys subscription was invaluable. Especially in researching PEPs and news sources from across the globe."
Will Fitzgibbon, ICIJ

The Panama Papers data was released on May 9th and was integrated into our Arachnys platform by May 12th. In the first two hours of the data being available on our platform, our clients had carried out over 306 searches; rising to over 1000 searches by the end of the week. The Panama Papers data is available on the ICIJ’s Offshore leaks site which also features the ingenious Linkurious network representation, a remarkable tool for open source investigation. From a commercial point of view, searching on the ICIJ website as a public resource offers risks; it could be cross-referenced with an IP address, leaking customer information. Arachnys searches remain confidential, and can be combined with searches of news, corporate and litigation information from 18000 sources in more than 200 countries in one platform.

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