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How ICIJ reminded me why I became a journalist

I’m not new to collaborative journalism. But I’ve never worked in a collaboration with the scope, ambition and sense of mission that I found at ICIJ.

Gerard Ryle at a team meeting

I’m not new to collaborative journalism. I led a great team of financial and investigative reporters at the Washington Post, and then I moved to the fact-checking website PolitiFact, which partnered with newspapers around the United States to hold politicians and others accountable for what they said.

But I’ve never worked in a collaboration with the scope and ambition and sense of mission that I found at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where I signed on last year to work on the Swiss Leaks project.

It’s been a shared enterprise by more than 150 journalists in 50 countries, frequently emailing or calling to compare notes, trade information or even provide translations, to better understand the treasure trove of information acquired by the ICIJ through its partner in Paris, Le Monde. It involved a team who built their own tools, reassembled the data to make it more useful and who then guided colleagues around the world on how to use it.

It was an extraordinary enterprise and a completely new platform  that is capable of magnifying the efforts of individual journalists and media operations to expose and address global wrongs.

The results? A massively detailed account of how HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) ignored troubling information about clients involved in money laundering, arms and drug trafficking or the blood diamond trade and continued to provide banking services for clients wanted by Interpol. When European nations came up with a way to track down previously undeclared – and untaxed –income, the bank found new ways to keep that information and income out of reach. Ordinary taxpayers? They got stuck with the bill.

It’s that injustice that drives the journalists at ICIJ – a somewhat ragtag group operating across borders, across languages and across very different news organization cultures – to work hard and long and with limited resources to tell these important stories.

As Gerard Ryle, who leads ICIJ’s tiny headquarters staff in Washington said, “At the core of our mission is journalism that has an impact, that holds the powerful accountable.” And that’s what puts the joy in the work we do.

Well, that, and the trepidation that comes with challenging some of the world’s large and powerful institutions. HSBC’s first reaction was legal threats and a demand that we destroy the data. But then they essentially ‘fessed up with a letter explaining how the global powerhouse was cleaning its house.

"It matters whether you like what we’re doing. As a small nonprofit outfit, we need to impress those who value journalism that holds the powerful to account."

This was my first project with ICIJ, and it took me back to the beginning of my career and why I got into this business. I wanted to try to make the world a better place.

And journalism, at its best, can help.

In the months leading up to publication, I realized how insufficiently cynical I was as we discovered bankers turning a blind eye toward clearly identified arms dealers, tax cheats and money launderers, all in the name of profit.

The days following publication in February were a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration as we watched officials around the world react by calling for more reforms and tougher prosecution of wrong-doing.

This is important work. And we need to keep doing it. When I worked at the Washington Post, we sometimes had to tell advertisers whose financial support was important to the paper that whether they liked it or not, we weren’t going to drop an important story.

Here, the situation is oddly reversed. Our editorial independence is held just as fiercely as it would be at a major newspaper. But we don’t have advertisers; we rely on financial support direct from our readers, as well as from foundations that care about accountability. 

It matters whether you like what we’re doing. As a small nonprofit outfit, we need to impress those who value journalism that holds to account those who distort the laws and the economy to enrich themselves — at the cost of, not just taxpayers, but sometimes at the cost of lives and hope.

In this case, without sufficient support, we may actually have to drop the important work we’re doing.

A donation to ICIJ can help continue bringing together journalists from around the world to tell stories that matter, in the depth they deserve.

And yes, full disclosure, I may stand to benefit as someone who will continue working on future collaborations. But as with most of us who work with ICIJ, that’s not my primary motivation. I was moved by the power of journalism.

Martha Hamilton was a writer, Wall Street and corporate crime editor, and personal finance columnist for The Washington Post until 2008. Since then she has worked as deputy editor for PolitiFact and written for publications including the Columbia Journalism Review and National Geographic News. She worked as an editor and writer on the Swiss Leaks project.

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