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Eden not Apocalypse: a golden future for investigative journalism.

It’s still Eden

By Gerard Ryle.

I was at a global conference in Rio late last year listening to Glenn Greenwald declare journalism in a “golden age”. Greenwald is the reporter credited with breaking the Edward Snowden story.

He said the profession’s largest institutions are experiencing tough times because of the changing way people consume news. This was not something to be sad about – rather we should be happy about it.

“The media institutions are failing and it’s a great thing to celebrate”, he said. Journalism isn’t dying. It’s thriving and just going to other places.”

At the same conference, the day before, David Leigh also declared that journalism was in a new “golden age”. Leigh is the recently retired investigations editor of The Guardian newspaper, the paper that first carried the Snowden stories. Leigh’s argument was this. It is a golden age because investigative journalists are coming together in new forms of collaborations using fresh technology.

And this dynamic is producing unprecedented levels of transparency and impact. “We are in the age of collaboration”, Leigh said. The Guardian has been involved in three of the biggest such investigative projects in the last three years.

Leigh cited the Wikileaks collaboration that released hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables; the most recent Snowden disclosures of secret data collection by the US National Security Agency; and a story that I was involved with that broke worldwide in April 2013 that has since become known as Offshore Leaks.

Once upon a time in Australia a man came along who claimed to have invented a magic pill. You put this pill in your motor vehicle and suddenly your fuel lasted 20 per cent longer. What’s more, the pill managed to eliminate all of the toxic emissions.

The Australian Trade Commission wanted to believe so badly it had an entire section of its website devoted to the success of this company. The company got nearly €300,000 in taxpayer grants for sales that had never been made.It had no factories; it had no trucks – in fact, it had no actual product for sale at all.

But it had penetrated deeply into Australia’s elite. Many of them secretly held shares in the company and they too thought they were going to be rich.

So when I exposed all this as a fraud I spent my time defending the lawsuits, attacks in the Australian senate and I went through the despair and doubt that all investigative reporters are put through when powerful people don’t want something made public.

This firm had been sending the money it was getting from selling shares to the British Virgin Islands and to other tax havens and then bringing the money back to Australia, as if it were sales of the magic pill. As long as new investors could be found, and the price of the shares continued to rise, the game went on.

It continued for nearly 18 months even after I exposed it as a fraud, until finally the company stopped paying the lawyers who were suing me.

By then I realised that I was staring at something much bigger – a secret universe that allowed this kind of thing to happen. And my pill company was only a small part of it.

After I wrote the book about the magic pill, a mysterious package arrived in the mail. It was a computer hard-drive – the kind you can buy in any store. But this one was packed with a hoard of documents – the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore tax haven system ever obtained by a journalist. We are talking 2.5 million secret records.

The total size of the files, if you were to measure it in gigabytes, was more than 160 times larger than the U.S. State Department documents given to Wikileaks. There were 120,000 clients from all over the world, from nearly 170 different countries. There were Americans … Russians … Irish.

But this presented me with a dilemma: I had spent most of my career as an investigative reporter. We fiercely protect our secrets, at times even from our editors because we know that the minute they hear what we are working on they want it right away. To be frank, when we find a good story we also like to keep the glory for ourselves – but it’s funny how life sometimes throws up opportunities in batches.

A few months after I got the hard drive in the mail, I got an email from my old professor at the University of Michigan. He was on a board that ran an outfit called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

This is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Washington DC that oversees some of the best investigative journalists in the world.It brings them together to work on cross border projects. He told me they were looking for somebody new to run the network – how did I fancy living in Washington for a few years?

And the data I had was a total mess and extremely hard to read. It contained nearly 30 years of records taken from people who set up offshore accounts for clients. Going, sometimes four deep, into each of these folders I found emails, random PDFs with passport and home addresses, and spreadsheets with the names of thousands of clients.

I began doing what many other reporters would do after me. I began looking for big names. But the story I was looking at was not about big names. The real value of what I had was an unprecedented look into a secret world. The same secret world I had a glimpse of when I was researching the magic pill.

This is a world whose very product is secrecy. That’s what it sells. And this anonymity allows some individuals and corporations to gain tax advantages not available to average people.

It allows frauds like the magic pill company.

It can also pit economies and entire nations against one another. You just have to look at the Greek fiscal disaster, which has been largely blamed on offshore tax cheating. Or the banking meltdown in Cyprus.

Both the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme and Enron relied on tax havens. It’s now estimated that half of all world trade, and one third of all world wealth goes through tax havens. If these people and companies are not paying their fair share of taxes, you are paying more.

Remember the consortium I mentioned? Well, more than 100 of those investigative reporters went to work in more than 50 countries! Being a non-profit, we few people at the core of it worked on a shoestring, using donated software and free tools like Skype.

Our early mornings would be spent talking to Europe, and our nights to Asia and New Zealand. But somehow, together, over a period of about one and a half years we created the biggest collaboration in journalism history. On April 4th last year, at exactly one minute past midnight, Berlin time, we published simultaneously with major media partners in 35 countries.

What we did changed laws from Columbia to Belgium and more changes are promised right across Europe, possibly even here in Ireland because of new initiatives being demanded by the European Union.

Hundreds of people began 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.

Recently, David Cameron 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 in Bangladesh, India, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Greece, South Korea, the Philippines. But why else is this a big deal?

Well, as we heard in Rio, 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 this. The trust level had to be so high. Any one of these journalists could have gone with the story on their own. But they didn’t.

The fairytale ending to this part of my talk is this: it worked. We showed 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.

We showed how just a handful of journalists can effect 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.

Instead of embracing the advances brought by the Internet, journalists like to blame it for all our current woes. I believe that at least some of our problems are a lot more fundamental.

Long before the Internet came along, we had already begun to move away from what was actually important to the public.News managers enjoyed such power they figured if they simply put something on the front page then it became news.

And if they ignored it, then it would fade into oblivion and their original judgment would be justified.What we did was cut back on investigative reporting and on hard sceptical analysis. Instead of believing in our fundamental value to the public by doing that work, we actually started being fearful.

Increasingly – and unquestioningly – we began to rely on a flow of news from governments, big business and a booming public relations industry.

Somewhere along the way we largely began pretending to do what we were supposed to do, instead of actually doing it.We lost our passion. For too long now we have asked how we can regain the ascendancy. Instead we should be asking: what indispensable role can our products play in the lives of the communities we claim to serve?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Wikileaks, the media has been surprisingly slow to wake up to the lessons it posed. Whistleblowers once trusted newspapers enough to make them their first port of call.

But the first lesson from Wikileaks is that that trust with the community has been broken through past condescension.

If you read the transcript of the case against Bradley Manning you will see he first called the Washington Post – but he couldn’t get through to a reporter.

Next he dialed the New York Times. His message wasn’t returned. He called Politico and again struck out. Only at this point did he reach out to Wikileaks.

The second lesson from Wikileaks – and from Offshore Leaks and Snowden – is that technology has freed potential sources to collect information on a vast scale never before thought possible.

Most media have long forgotten that good journalism requires good information.And some of the people best placed to provide that information are actually their own readers or listeners.

The same technology that is destroying our industry has the potential to remake it – but we first have to regain our relevance and the public’s trust. For instance, there are barriers to free speech we should start speaking out about.

It is only when you work in the US that you realise how difficult it is to practice journalism under the British legal system that both Australia and Ireland have adopted.

My former newspaper in Australia had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending my magic pill story. The defamation laws both here and in Australia are one of the reasons why we have a mass media that is largely concentrated in the hands of the few. It is one of the reasons why people are reluctant to report on obvious corruption – you have to have deep pockets to defend the truth.

I find it interesting that The Guardian chose to publish the majority of the Snowden revelations through its Guardian America subsidiary. They were able to largely sidestep British law and take advantage of the same constitutional protection for freedom of speech that exists in the US.The biggest players in the world like the New York Times, the Huffington Post and The Guardian are going global.

That’s why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. That is why Pierre Omidyar is financing Glenn Greenwald. Newsrooms here in Ireland, too, need to be revolutionised. They need to team up with other media or, dare I say it, with organizations such as ICIJ.

We should embrace the concept of reverse publishing – where we tell our communities what we intend to publish before we publish it, in order that they can contribute and improve the final product.

This is how we can build platforms that would allow communities to form around certain topics, without forgetting that the final product will still need to arrive with lots of surprises. We have to free ourselves of daily deadlines as much as humanly possible.That might mean less volume, but the less will be done better.

We have to identify the issues that people really care about. And concentrate on those. Every media outlet should immediately court and seek to protect whistleblowers big and small, because good sources are the lifeblood of agenda-setting journalism. Every outlet should construct databases of information that should rival national security agencies’.

And we should apply that accumulated knowledge in every single piece of journalism that is produced. We should ensure that a sizable number of reporters in every newsroom be managed separately but intensely away from daily beats – employed to get stories that nobody else has.

The approach adopted should be about making judgements on what might be important several days or even months in advance. Where all the work you present is adding real value to the lives of the community you serve or is setting an agenda for that community.

The idea embraced by many not so long ago that an unfiltered Internet would create an information utopia has largely been proved wrong. The vastness of information is overwhelming and, more importantly, it is hard to know what to trust. The public actually needs gatekeepers. Being optimistic – in it self – will not suffice. And it is clear now that cutting costs and hoping that the hurricane will pass will not work either.

Let us be optimistic that we are indeed in a golden age of journalism, as suggested in Rio, but let us agree now that journalists hold in our hands a legacy too important to be killed off by our own inaction.