Yesterday the Panama Papers were released. Their impact will only become clear in time, but for the time being, journalism lives.
The law firm ‘Mossack Fonesca’ – a Panama-based firm which operates in 42 countries and provides offshore services – has suffered leaks worth of 11.5 million documents. What we all already knew to be true is about to be confirmed: that tax evasion and financial fraud is rife amongst the world’s elite. The consequences of these revelations may turn out to be sporadic. While we might get governmental action (such as a public list of company ownership) we might once again be denied major prosecutions. While the Icelandic Prime Minister’s guilt-wracked interview might be enough to jeopardise his political position, Russia’s Putin will probably once again emerge unscathed irregardless of the findings. But this is just the beginning, and it is unwise to make predictions at the start of such a long process, a process that has taken a year already just to reach this early stage. So what can we infer from the leaks?
Actually, not much. Only 149 documents out of 11.5 million have been released. Many in the twitterverse have called upon the ICIJ and the Süddenutsche Zeitung to release all their files for public use. I hope that they do this eventually, but in the mean time it might be prudent to exercise patience. After all, there is an element of responsibility to consider here, for, although not entirely analogous, the politicized and native way in which Wikileaks published the Iraq War logs is not something to be encouraged. It is not as if the Panama Papers are files being kept hidden either – they have been shared with both the BBC and the Guardian – and if all the files were to be released, then the total volume might in the short term quench the current flame of public interest and in the long run prove inefficacious with regards to successful prosecutions. Continuously releasing over time has far greater potential. Firm conclusions can be wrought, allegations can be made water-tight so as to not appear scurrilous, and the fire of public appal can be nurtured.
And so far they have tended to their candle beautifully. The layout of their website is a joy to scroll through. Visually pleasing and with interactive graphs and educative games, it makes an otherwise draining read an enjoyable one. This is a remarkable and invaluable service when coupled with the depth of analysis that could be brought to public attention. That this is remarkable nowadays is indicative of the downward trend in the journalistic profession’s quality of output – whether that be through blatant defamation on websites such as Salon (which, by the way, is an insult to the historical experience of the word ‘salon’) or the continued existence of those stylers of life in that magazine which people call the Sun. The Panama Papers might prove be an atavism which has much more in common with some 18th century journalism, such as Radishchev’s Journey from St.Petersburg to Moscow.
Unmasking the digitally anonymous is the new space for the frontiersmen of modern journalism. This leak should be our reminder that there is still great journalism done by great journalists, such as those fighting censorship in Turkey or Azerbaijan, but that they can easily be forgotten, or even entirely missed, when our TVs are instead saturated by interviews of Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper’s most recent interview with the man spent its minutes talking about wife spats and arm pats. Today, the title ‘journalist’ sometimes seems to provoke more of a sneer than the title ‘lawyer’. The Panama Papers prove that this should never have been allowed to become the case, and we should resist the guardians of the consensus, the servants of the ratings, and the help of the status-quo.