In 2016, Bastian Obermayer, deputy investigations editor of Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, who a year earlier had received the Panama Papers leak from law firm Mossack Fonseca, got wind of a new leak, again about offshore finance. Soon, he and colleague Frederik Obermaier found themselves wading through some 13.4 million documents, many from an elite offshore law firm, Appleby.
Found among the data: the offshore interests and activities of more than 120 politicians and world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II, and 13 advisers, major donors and members of President Donald J. Trump’s administration, and the tax engineering and other schemes of more than 100 multinational corporations, including Apple, Nike, Facebook, Allergan and Glencore.
The German journalists turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an organization that has essentially created a new journalism paradigm: networked, collaborative, cross-border, investigative, and thoroughly professional.
Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ’s deputy director and manager of the Paradise Papers project, says that choosing journalism partners is like organizing a dinner party: The chemistry among the guests just has to work. ICIJ’s “radical sharing” model requires journalists to resist natural competitive instincts by both sharing what they know and, critically, not allowing word of the project to leak until a prearranged time. In this case, the dinner party came to include more than 380 journalists from 98 global media partners on six continents.
ICIJ’s Data & Research Unit spent weeks writing software and developing technologies to allow exploration, sharing and analysis. ICIJ’s small Washington, D.C.-based staff coordinated the massive joint effort started by a town-hall type meeting in April at Süddeutsche Zeitung’s headquarters in Munich and spent countless hours on security safeguards and partner security training.
Working on a giant, secure private data-sharing-cum-social-media-platform known as I-Hub, the partners identified stories relevant to their respective countries and worked jointly on others.
The Nike story, for instance, could only have been achieved thanks to the ICIJ’s collaborative model. It started with reporters marching into sports stores around the world to buy Nike shoes. Fine print on the store receipts revealed company codes that could be matched to local company registries. Filings from the registries then provided evidence that Nike was routing most of its non-U.S. income through subsidiaries in the Netherlands.
Making these test purchases was the first step in tracing a complex money trail running through a web of Nike subsidiaries, ultimately designed to shift about $1 billion a year in profits to a secretive company registered in the tax haven of Bermuda.
ICIJ’s staff produced more than a dozen major pieces of their own. In a coordinated action about a month before publication, reporters around the globe began to contact the subjects of their pieces, triggering an intense period of back-and-forth with Appleby and other law firms representing elite clients to be named in the piece. The exercise, while grueling, is a hallmark of ICIJ projects and a reason projects of such massive scale, reporting so many explosive facts, run virtually error-free.