Increasingly it seems the rich have a dilemma. When does the reputational damage incurred by being hauled across the coals for using tax havens outweigh the financial benefits? Granted, siphoning wealth through a Maltese bank to buy a Lithuanian shopping mall isn’t exactly John le Carre levels of sinister. But when it happens to Bono we’ve got a problem- all his worthy campaigning now risks being made history. The Paradise Papers – a leak of 13.4m documents, mostly from one leading firm in offshore finance- reminds us that investigative journalism is in buoyant health. This, magnified by the thundering echo chamber of twitter branding the guilty without any of the hassle of formal process, ensures that it’s never been harder to be rich and famous. It may be time that reputation be thought of less in abstract terms and more in something more numerical that can be tangibly off-set against the downsides of keeping your money in a country where you actually live.
Although it has the look of WikiLeaks- the global networks, the raided hard drives, the info dumps- the significance of the Paradise Papers is to give a shot in the arm to the hardworking hack. The utopia of independent netizens that was seemingly heralded by Assange never really materialised. The Paradise Papers -following on from last year’s Panama- shows yet again that the only body equipped to dive deep and hit hard is that lumbering old dinosaur the mainstream media. True, it has evolved somewhat since the likes of Harry Evans’s five man (and one woman) team in a back room of The Sunday Times. Paradise shows how the digital entanglements and global reach of exposing how the rich hide their loot demands elaborate networks like International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Ironically it is the relative decline of investigative teams in national papers like the Guardian that have swelled the ranks of the ICIJ and similar agencies that train and champion the media sleuths who were behind today’s revelations.
Moving beyond the embarrassing headlines for Bono and Liz, how sure can we be that the leak will materially change anything? Take the exposure of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca last year which brought down a European head of state, implicated the family of the then UK PM and discredited global efforts to address widespread abuses of power by the rich. By the end of the year the story and its aftermath seems to have receded in the fog of news- both fake and real. Even little Panama has moved on, bringing in Bellwether Strategies, the firm that gave us the acceptable face of China for Beijing ’08, to rebrand the country as less about Dickie Ropers swigging their Crème de menthes on their untaxed island getaways and more about their high levels of literacy and eclectic cuisine. Paradise may not be entirely lost.