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Seminar report: Strength in numbers — how journalists cracked the Panama Papers

By Krzysztof Dzięciołowski

The Panama papers story began when a German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung journalist was offered online access to a vast block of data by an anonymous whistle blower with a nickname “John Doe”. The leak of millions of documents from a legal company Mossack Fonseca linked heads of states, celebrities and criminals using secret hideaways in tax havens. It was too big for one newspaper to investigate.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) stepped in to help with the task. Among journalists deployed to plough thorough the files was The Guardian’s Holly Watt. 

The Panama papers has been the biggest data leak to date (2600 GB). Watt offered a comparison with other big leaks: Luxembourg tax files were 4.4 GB, Wikileaks Cables 1.7 GB, HSBC 3.3 GB.

To cope with the sheer volume of the leak, 400 journalists from some 100 outlets and 80 countries got involved in a large international network of journalists chasing the international network of money. To Watt and others, the endless sea of information and complicated matters were initially hard to comprehend.

The ICIJ in charge of the investigation created a special online system called Blacklight to help making 11 million documents searchable. On top of that there was another tool designed to help journalists visualise data and it was called Linkurious. And crucially a Facebook-like platform for journalists was created under the name of The intelligence hub, aka the I-hub - enabling journalists to share ideas and information swiftly and promptly, according to Watt. 

As she says ironically, the Panama Papers are kept on an offshore server. The ICIJ had tight security in place so that if someone tried to hack the database for whatever reason, that could be identified.

Watt points out that while assessing the credibility of the documents the journalists came to a conclusion that it would have been impossible to manufacture them. Yet all decisions on publications were made on a case by case basis with legal consultations and a thorough check of the facts. 

The launch of the story was a coordinated effort on a global scale. As TV outlets required more head-time than newspapers, the big day was pushed back from November, 2015 to April, 2016. Watt recalls that day in the news room as unnerving and exciting. 

Watt says that journalism is changing today and she points out that collaboration between journalists from different countries can help to deal with such vast data leaks. She also thinks that investigative journalism takes time, resources, determination, and sometimes obsession. 

Holly Watt, investigations correspondent, The Guardian was speaking at an RISJ Seminar on Wednesday 9 November 2015.