Last week’s shenanigans from Donald Trump reminded us of a particularly florid episode of House of Cards. This week, with the leak of 11.5 million documents suggesting elite tax avoidance and evasion on an heroic scale, we’re in John Le Carre territory – if not the Night Manager (currently playing out on BBC First, and highly recommended), then maybe The Tailor of Panama.
No-one is surprised that Vladimir Putin’s buddies are stashing away millions of the Russian people’s roubles offshore, or that the Chinese communist leaders have been sending trillions of dollars to tax havens in places like the British Virgin Islands. But these documents make the usual denials and cover ups hard to sustain, especially for leaders who claim legitimacy by pretending to be socialists, working selflessly for the people.
China has sought to block all coverage of the Panama papers, and Putin has dismissed it all as an anti-Russian conspiracy, a bit like the shooting down of MH17 or the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin gates. Poor Vlad is the victim, here!
The cat’s truly out of the bag this time, though. The Icelandic prime minister is the first casualty, but he won’t be the last. David Cameron in the UK may well stand to benefit from money stashed in the Caribbean, courtesy of his late father’s creative accounting.
Sports stars, the Rolling Stones, Bollywood actors, politicians past and present – the names keep coming. Again, none of this morally dubious, if not necessarily illegal avoidance of the taxes that we lesser mortals have to pay, surprises us. But the sheer quantity of hard evidence pouring out makes denial look simply duplicitious, and compounds the crime.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been doing this for years, embarrassing the legacy media with their capacity to break agenda-leading stories of diplomatic, military and financial shady dealings. It’s good to see that this time it’s professional journalists leading the way, through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The ICIJ, like the hackers and maybe-journalists of WikiLeaks, has demonstrated the power of digital technology to investigate and then break stories that in the analogue era would have been too difficult, if not impossible to pursue.
This is network journalism at its most potent, practised at the global level, involving collaboration, sharing, and a professional readiness to sacrifice the individual scoop for the much more impactful collective hit.
Putin could shut down one journalist burrowing into his private affairs – and has done – but all the Polonium 210 in the world can’t intimidate a network like the ICIJ.
The Chinese leadership can seek to wrap their US$10 billion great firewall around the unfolding online evidence of how they plunder the country for their personal enrichment, but they can’t stop the globalised public sphere from spreading the news.
This is cultural chaos at its most progressive and democratising. What these kleptocratic elites still don’t get is that the very act of attempted censorship becomes further, highly transparent, damning evidence of their corruption.
Who knows if the Panama papers will have any impact on how our political and financial elites do business. The global public’s capacity to be hoodwinked by elite rip-off merchants is considerable.
But I choose to believe that we are, on balance, empowered by the knowledge of what is in those documents. We don’t need the ICIJ to tell us that power corrupts, but we surely benefit by being able to attach names and numbers to that broad understanding.
How we respond as global citizens remains to be seen. A first step, perhaps, is to support investigative journalism with our wallets. There are plenty of free news media outlets around, and I enjoy many of them. But Buzzfeed listicles and native advertising on Gawker won’t pay for those brave men and women who even now put their lives and reputations on the line to blow the whistle on global gangsters like Putin.
So today, if you care about this stuff, go out and buy a subscription to a worthy publication, become a friend or supporter of journalism that matters. Don’t leave it to someone else to defend the globalised public sphere the ICIJ exemplifies.