Much of the credit for exposing the so-called Panama Papers scandal has been awarded to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an outfit which, until a few days ago, this former journalist had never heard of.
Of course, the ICIJ operates almost as much in the shadows as the rogue organisations and individuals it was formed to uncover, although it does have a web site. As does Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based management consultancy, which operates in the same shadows, though for entirely different and far les commendable reasons.
The ICIJ describes itself as a “global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories”. It was founded in 1997 by Chuck Lewis, a ‘respected American journalist’, who once produced news programmes for the ABC and CBS television networks. The web site lists dozens of ICIJ news media ‘partners’, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian and the Sunday Times. What ‘partners’ means in legal or administrative terms I have no idea, but all power to them.
Apparently the leaked Panama Papers comprise millions of documents. Investigative journalists have never had it so good. The internet providing a rich and very convenient source for sensitive materials of the kind their authors would rather we did not see. The shadows are less gloomy than they used to be.
Having said so, I found the Panama revelations less than shocking – actually, barely beyond surprising. The names of political and celebrity figures found to have availed themselves of Mossack Fonseca’s services in forming offshore tax shelters and the like merely of passing interest. Few have left me spitting with outrage over my breakfast toast. Thank you ICIJ for reporting that various despots and celebrities have been hiding their money in offshore companies to avoid paying taxes, but the mere existence of such vehicles is hardly a sensation. Most of the ‘names’ so far disclosed will not care that they have been found out. And once the scandal has been replaced on the front pages it will be, for them, back to business as usual. As most media outlets have pointed out, what has been going on is not even illegal, just ethically questionable. When there is a great amount of money at stake, ethical questions and charges of hypocrisy are among the very last thing that will keep the tax-dodgers awake at nights.
The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wants the British Government, by means of an Order in Council, to take over the fiscal authority now in the hands of various British possessions and dependencies, such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar. That proposal reflects a legitimate and understandable sense of outrage, but it is hardly a practical one.
Those countries, dependent on dodgy financiers – and doubtless international drug dealers, too – would go skint faster than a 50-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial average, requiring huge subsidies from Westminster to sustain their economies. (Rather, some would say, like Scotland, which ironically went bust and became an English dependency in the eighteenth century after some mad scheme to set up a settlement in Panama went horribly wrong.)
Needless to say, the government of present-day Panama, along with other non-British tax havens would be delighted with such a development. Corbyn may be an honourable man, but politically he is a simpleton.
Meanwhile, David Cameron, Barack Obama and other world leaders, so-called, will tut-tut about the matter, and drone on about forming some international watchdog to end the abuse, but only until the scandal has been carried off the front pages and television exposes by soft Caribbean breezes.
Yes, it is easy to be cynical about the global tax dodgers, but that is because it is damnably difficult to control them. Until someone comes up with an agreed methodology to do just that, the protests will be less tropical breeze than blasts of hot air. Meanwhile, the rich and the powerful will continue to indulge in their nefarious practice with both impunity and immunity.
My advice is: don’t hold your breath on something else happening.
And to ICIJ I say: keep up the good work.