The big tax haven scoop: 3 lessons for the Indian media

The Indian Express today published a headline story exposing a global network of 120,000 offshore corporate entities and trusts in known tax havens that can be traced to individuals in 70 countries. There are 612 Indians on the list, and the prominent names include being Vijay Mallya, Congress MP Vivekanand Gaddam, Teja Raju (son of Ramalingam Raju), Essar Group's Ravikant Ruia, Samir Modi, Indiabulls' Saurabh Mittal, Abhey Kumar Oswal etc. And the trails lead back to some of the biggest corporate brand names: Dabur, Berger Paints, Onida, Khatau, MRF Tires.

"The secret files provide facts and figures—cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals—that illustrate how financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe. They represent the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organisation," reports the Express.

Kingfisher chief Vijay Mallya. Reuters

Kingfisher chief Vijay Mallya. Reuters

None of this will surprise the average Indian reader who already suspected the worst. But what is striking—and ought to make us sit up and pay attention—is the unprecedented scope and scale of the endeavour. "The project, Secrecy For Sale: Inside The Global Offshore Money Maze,  is one of the largest and most complex cross border investigative projects in journalism history," notes the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which brought together 80-plus journalists in 46 countries to investigate 2.5 million secret files that it received from an anonymous source. "ICIJ’s offshore 260-gigabyte data collection is more than 160 times larger in size as measured in gigabytes than the US State Department cables leaked to and published by Wikileaks in 2010," writes ICIJ's Duncan Campbell.

This is the future of investigative journalism. And a possible path to its salvation in India where it remains an endangered species, threatened variously by lack of editorial independence, corporate competition, and generalised indifference. Here are three lessons the Indian media can learn from the ICIJ model.

Petty competition is a dead end

"It was a huge step. As reporters and journalists, the first thing you think is not ‘Let me see how I can share this with the world.’ You think: ‘How can I scoop everyone else?’ The thinking here was different," says ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Guevara, explaining why the Institute opted to assemble a large global team of journalists from an array of publications.

Making that leap is all the more difficult in our media landscape where outlets won't even mention the name of other publications for fear of giving them credit. Worse is the tendency to ignore important stories just because they were broken by a competitor. Where a New York Times will try and move a Washington Post story forward, our editors loath to even acknowledge important scoops other than their own. There isn't any mention of the ICIJ investigation in any of the other Indian newspapers today. And given past behaviour, they are likely to maintain a studied silence.

Coupled with a tendency toward copy/paste journalism, i.e. flagrant plagiarism, this kind of pettiness creates a toxic atmosphere of distrust that actively discourages collaborations even between non-competing media outlets. As a colleague points out, there is no reason why Indian outlets should not be working closely with their Italian counterparts on the AgustaWestland scandal. But when our first instinct is to compete not collaborate, such creative and riskier strategies fall by the wayside.

Investment required

Everyone wants a scoop, the perfect sting, the giant headline that will grab eyeballs and prestige. But very few want to pay the high price of solid, investigative reporting. Driven by the corporate imperative to minimise costs, editors are loath to invest the time, patience and resources it takes to uncover a solid lead -- which may well evaporate after months of hard work. Investigative journalism requires commitment to process, not just to outcomes.

Part of the process is training journalists, equipping them with the increasingly complex skills required to do their work. Uncovering corruption in this age of global capitalism requires financial expertise, technological skills, and old-fashioned on-the-street reporting. A reporter has to be able to first comprehend the data, connect the dots and unearth the story. The ICIJ project also entailed huge investments in specialised data-mining software, and research managers and training to assist journalists use the tools.

In India, young reporters graduate from journalism schools which equip them with rudimentary skills that are not adequate for the challenges of modern-day investigative journalism. They are hungry but under-utilised by employers who can't be bothered to invest in their training. We are churning out instead a generation of reporters who can only report on what is easily accessible and already known.

The trend instead is to outsource the investigative stories, i.e. buy them from independent outfits who hawk potential scoops and stings to the highest bidder. The lack of oversight makes it difficult to gauge the quality of the information when it is collected by outside sources, but allure of getting a big cover story or primetime scoop without expending in-house time and resources often proves irresistible.

One way to minimise the investment demands is to share the costs, which brings us right back to lesson #1.

Unprofitable journalism

"Tens of thousands of journalists have been trained in Eastern Europe and hundreds of millions were spent, but if you look at the media industry you will find a broken industry and a profoundly corrupt media where good journalists don’t make any difference," says Stefan Candea, co-founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, adding, "The present ownership landscape leads to self-censorship and lack of resources for investigations, and the Internet doesn’t make any difference."

In the absence of editorial freedom, technology and training will do little to advance the cause of truth-telling. In India, the firewall between the editorial and business sides is wafer thin, and in a number of cases, entirely non-existent. The corporate bottom-line makes editors timid, drives down standards, and prioritises short-term gain. All the editorial rhetoric about media standards and accountability is reduced to white noise by the reality of owner-dominance.

The corporate media genie cannot be put back in the bottle -- and no one is arguing for a return to the socialist era model. But there is a glaring absence of robust non-profit media institutes which can freely invest in high quality, independent journalism, a point underlined by Cobra Post's Aniruddha Bahal in an interview with India Real Time:

[Investigative journalism] is not as robust as some of us would like it to be. It is for this reason that I am toying with the idea of converting Cobrapost to a non-profit investigative media organization. The U.S. and Europe and even the Philippines have a healthy tradition of it. Mainstream media has too many backroom ghosts they don’t want to touch. They have commercial interests which are paramount. There is the ever present bogey of the loss of advertisement and sponsorship from doing investigative reports. I would like Cobrapost to be in a space where it doesn’t have to bother about these things.

There are many possible variations in the non-profit model. Some like San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting undertake the actual reporting, and then place them in prominent news outlets. Others are incubators for collaborative projects a la ICIJ, bringing together a mix of for-profit and non-profit media outlets who share information, talent and resources.

As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Dean Starkman puts it, "To me, journalism is particularly important because it is the oxygen of democracy. At its best, it is the main thing that is capable of explaining complex problems to a mass audience.That’s its most critical role--and its most difficult task." It's a task that grows ever more difficult in an era where information is infinitely vast, sophisticated, and veiled in ever increasing layers of secrecy. Democracy requires ever more vigilant and skilled watchdogs. We don't have many.

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2013 15:29 PM

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