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Swiss Leaks and Offshore Tax Havens: How Large Journalistic Investigations Work

We spoke to one of the coordinators of the recent HSBC leaks about how the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism go about their investigations.

by Alberto Mucci
23 February 2015, 11:25am

Photo via Wiki Commons.

This month, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism published a report entitled Swiss Leaks: Murky Cash Sheltered by Bank Secrecy, which alleged that the private Swiss subsidiary of British bank HSBC had been knowingly profiting from the tax evasion of wealthy clients.

Since the BBC reported that HSBC pressured certain British media partners not to report on the scandal, the investigation has sparked a few public spats. Peter Oborne, former Chief Political Commentator of the Daily Telegraph, resigned over the incident, claiming that the Telegraph had suppressed reports of wrongdoing in order to maintain advertising income from HSBC. The Daily Telegraph made it clear they "make no apology," before launching an attack first on the Guardian, then publishing a "vile and unjustified" story trying to link two suicides within the Times' commercial department with "pressure to hit targets."

In case you were wondering how such an enormous investigation—which involved over 130 journalists—started off, evolved, and was published, we talked to Gerard Ryle, head of the ICIJ offices in Washington D.C. and one of the coordinators of the leaks.

VICE: Hi Gerard. So what can you tell us about how an investigation like this starts out?
Gerard Ryle: For the Swiss leaks investigation it started thanks to raw information. Many reporters around the world have been aware for years that the former HSBC employee Hervé Falciani had stolen information from the bank. He had publicly claimed this material was of enormous public interest. Just like others, we followed his story and watched as first France and then Belgium and then Argentina launched inquiries, based on his information after he turned whistleblower. Many journalists approached Falciani to get access to the material but they were always rebuffed.

How did you finally convince him?
Through a contact, we found out two journalists from Le Monde—Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme—had got access to a version of the data. We have worked with Le Monde many times in the past, so I naturally approached Le Monde asking for access to the material. The negotiations took several weeks but eventually we were granted access.

It was then that the real work began, at least at our end. Gerard and Fabrice came to Washington to give us the material and to explain what they had discovered from looking at it. We agreed the terms of cooperation with Le Monde editors.

What did you do next?
Our first task was to scour the material and determine if it was in the public interest to reveal it. The material was organized by ICIJ's data team into a searchable format—a tool that could be accessed by selected reporters around the world, using encrypted methods. After further weeks of work, we decided that we had seen enough in the material to warrant public interest.

At that point, we took several further steps. We began inviting selected reporters to Washington to look at the material, to get further opinions on its public interest. That process began with a reporter from the BBC's Panorama program. Then a reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, etc. Each reporter, in turn, found the material to be of public interest.

At the end of that stage we reached out to dozens of media partners and invited them to a meeting, at their own expense, at Le Monde's offices in Paris. The group discussed the issues the material threw up and we decided by the end of the day that we would publish the following February.

How do you get in contact with sources and how do you protect your source?
Depending on the level of secrecy needed, we use different methods. If at all possible, we meet sources in person. The source of this material was a source of Gerard and Fabrice, from Le Monde. As a general rule, it is best to meet a source early so that you can help them protect themselves. All too often sources are discovered by actions they take well before they reach out to journalists.

How do you investigate while maintaining the secrecy of your work?
The big misunderstanding about obtaining leaked material is that people think it's easy—that all you have to do is report on the documents. Nothing could be further from reality. The documents are just the beginning. ICIJ undertook old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting in multiple countries. It pored over public records to provide context to the documents it saw, including corporate filings, property records, financial disclosures, and documents produced by lawsuits and regulatory and criminal investigations. All of these things can be done without disclosing what triggered your inquiries.

Are you ever afraid of the consequences of such investigations?
We weigh up very carefully all consequences, but we always proceed by what we believe is in the public interest.

Are you happy about how investigations into HSBC's alleged wrongdoings are developing?
We just concern ourselves with the story. It is now up to authorities to act, if they decide to act.

Has the ICIJ or have you ever been threatened after you came public with an investigation?
Never personally, no. We have received legal letters, as any media organization does, and our lawyers deal with legal complaints if we get them.

What is the most dangerous situation the ICIJ has ever been confronted with?
It is a rather boring answer, but the truth is our only danger is in making sure our stories are correct. We employ American magazine-style fact checking for each story. That means footnoting every fact and employing a professional fact-checker to go through every fact before publication. We also go far beyond most media in reaching out to people we intend to name to make sure we put those facts in the correct context.

Do you collaborate with authorities of the countries you are investigating in? If not, why not?
The long-standing policy of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—and our parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity—is not to turn over such material. The ICIJ is not an arm of law enforcement and is not an agent of the government. We are an independent reporting organization, served by and serving our members, the global investigative journalism community, and the public.

The Swiss Leaks, the Luxembourg Leaks, the investigation into the global offshore maze—your investigative projects always aim at big targets. Can you hint at what's coming next?
We're about to reveal a major story in March that has nothing to do with tax havens. It concerns global aid program that are aimed at helping poor people. We found they, in fact, often do the opposite. All of our stories have to be global. They have to cross borders.

Thanks, Gerard.