As the Panama Papers continue to embarrass leaders across continents, one thought has kept occurring to me: How the hell did the organizers pull it off? I mean, how did they corral hundreds of reporters? How did they make sense of so many documents? And, most importantly, how did they stay sane during it all?
So I spoke with Marina Walker Guevara, who helped shepherd the project. Walker is deputy director of the International of the Consortium of Investigative Journalism, which has a long history of collaborating with many, many far-flung partners. In early 2015, Walker and ICIJ were finishing up work on another big leak. “We’re never going to do this again,” Marina recalled thinking. “It’s great. But we’re exhausted and we need a vacation.”
Then ICIJ got a phone call from the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung about a way bigger file they wanted to share…
Some tidbits from our conversation:
The New York Times blew its chance on the Panama Papers, and, and so did CNN and 60 Minutes…
Walker Guevara: We approached the Times twice in the past. The first time was in 2012 and that was the first offshore investigation we did, it was called Offshore Leaks and there were many meetings in New York where [ICIJ director] Gerard Ryle went and pitched the story and then in the end it looked like we were getting nowhere. There were just too many questions, it proved to be too complicated, and we didn't proceed. Then we went back to them again in the Swiss Leaks investigation in 2014 and in that case we were not as insistent. We sent emails but when we didn't hear back we didn't try harder.
For the Panama Papers, we were approached by McClatchy. They have a very good reputation and were eager to work with us.
We also pitched it to CNN. They said yes, but then they said no. They decided to pursue their own investigation rather than join ours. We were a little disappointed, but we understood. Then we pitched the story to 60 Minutes and this time they said no as well. In the end we had Univision and Fusion. We had worked with both of them in previous investigations.
Walker had to push often-secretive investigative reporters to share.
Walker Guevara: When it's been a week or two and I haven't seen them in our encrypted forum, I ask them and they usually are like, "Well I just found this, I wasn't sure what to do." Then I encourage them to share it because Süddeutsche Zeitung was sharing all 11.5 million records with all of us. That's how generous they were.
It's just having these conversations and making them understand you cannot treat this data as your own property. Sometimes they called me a "cat herder.”
They all decided to ignore news along the way.
Walker Guevara: When news on FIFA was breaking, well we had a ton of information on FIFA. But we didn't publish of course. There was also the huge corruption scandal in Brazil. We had more than 100 offshore companies linked to the biggest characters in that case and we couldn't publish.
Because part of our model is that we all publish together. That’s because we want to create a commotion when we publish. We want to have global impact. We don't want the story to drip and to start turning out in little pieces that make the news for one day or two in a country and then go away.
Some of these journalists sometimes had to keep details quiet from their own bosses because to make sure that nobody got too excited and would be under pressure to publish.
Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read the Panama Papers investigation at ICIJ.org, and listen to On the Media's interview with the consortium's director, Gerard Ryle.