Happy birthday Offshore Leaks – what we’ve learned, and what the future holds

Today we celebrate the first anniversary of an international journalism phenomenon that became known as “Offshore Leaks”. In reality, the investigative reporting project, which has to date involved more than 100 journalists, 50 media partners, and consumed countless hours, days, and months of ICIJ time, has been years in the making.

By now it has become a relatively familiar story for those interested in the project – how an investigation into the offshore dealings of a fraudulent Australian company led to a computer hard-drive being sent to me in the mail. The hard-drive contained never-before-seen details of a secret world.

But a year on from publishing the first of dozens of articles in the Secrecy for Sale series, I wanted to reflect not just on what we’ve achieved in telling these stories, but also on how Offshore Leaks has successfully presented a viable new model for journalism.

Direct global impact

What the ICIJ did with Offshore Leaks changed a number of laws around the globe. And more changes are promised.

Hundreds of people all over the world have begun receiving ‘please explain’ letters from authorities. And we know authorities all over the world have sought to recover tens of millions of dollars already.

The five richest nations in Europe got together and agreed to share tax information. The French President came out and called for tax havens to be "eradicated."

The British Prime Minister used a press conference at the White House to address the stories, and later introduced a new law that would make public the true owners of British companies.

We were credited with putting tax evasion on the agendas of the both the G8 and the G20 and we have been responsible for official inquiries and government reaction in Bangladesh, India, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Greece, South Korea, the Philippines … and a host of other countries.

The bigger picture

Why else is this a big deal? Well, as we hear over and again, journalism is in crisis. The business models that sustained investigative reporting are broken.

So you can imagine the pressure and the ego dramas that could have killed Offshore Leaks. The trust level had to be so high. Any one of the dozens of journalists we worked with could have gone with the story on their own.

But they didn’t.

The fairytale ending for ICIJ is that it worked. 

We have shown there are alternatives to the Wikileaks method of just dumping raw information on the Internet.

What we perfected along the way was a potential new model for journalism – one that won’t work every time, but one that now needs to be taken very seriously.

We have shown how just a handful of journalists can affect change across the world by applying new technology and old fashioned shoe leather to vast amounts of leaked information.

Together, we provided all-important context to what had originally been delivered to me via the computer hard-drive.

We put the power back into the hands of journalists – using watchdog journalism methods for assessing what was important and what was not.

We also applied journalism ethics to the release of information and took time to dig deep – much deeper and longer that most media allow these days.

It was big risk, sure. Many things could have gone wrong. And it wouldn’t work for every story – that, too, I am sure about.

But there is no doubt that we live in a shrinking world and the media has largely been slow to wake up to this.

The issues we report on are more and more trans-national. Giant corporations operate their businesses on a global scale and, clearly, spies do too. Environmental and health crises are global. So too are financial flows and financial crises.

So it seems staggering that journalism has been so late to tackle stories on a global level – because the information on all of those issues is now held on an international scale.

I’m proud of the work that ICIJ has done on opening up the secret world of offshore accounts and tax havens.

But I am equally, if not more proud of the way our community of reporters and media partners worked together – genuinely collaborated – to overcome the traditional restrictions of jurisdiction, geography, and human resources.

If we have proved anything, it’s that cross-border reporting is possible in a way never seen before – and it is my hope that, one year on from what is probably the biggest collaboration in media history, this is only the beginning. 

More than ever there are issues that must be explored in a depth that is only possible when we can transcend borders and other constraints.

Gerard Ryle is ICIJ director. Part of this blog post has been adapted from the 2013 MEAA Centenary Lecture he gave in Australia. 


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