In recent days, news sources have extensively covered the Panama Papers — an enormous financial leak which revealed information about the shell corporations of scores of global elites. However, I have issues with anyone who wants to extrapolate the information leak’s impact cross-nationally as well as the coverage style of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Many people have pointed to the fact that the prime minister of Iceland stepped down after being named in the papers. They argue the reaction in Iceland shows how serious it is to face implication in the newspapers. However, any such conclusion is deeply flawed.
Iceland is a unique country, and to understand the prime minister’s quick response to the Panama Papers, we must understand how the country reacted to the 2008 financial crisis. Unlike the United States, Iceland chose to harshly prosecute crony relationships between the financial sector and the government, jailing dozens of bankers.
For this reason, relationships between the government and the financial sector are obviously an extremely touchy issue in Iceland. Accordingly, it’s unsurprising that a politician’s implication in shady financial dealings would result in public outcry and his decision to step down.
However, we cannot extrapolate the Icelandic prime minister’s reaction in order to predict how other world leaders will respond to implication in the Panama Papers. For example, I hardly think the revelation of shady dealings will lead to meaningful change somewhere like Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Misguided international comparisons aside, the Panama Papers also represent a failure in journalistic practices. The leaks dramatize
offshoring finances. Instead of a frank discussion about legal principles and disclosing financial information, ICIJ favored videos with images of guns, drugs and money. In a video online, it even published anecdotes about kidnapping and pedophilia.
This practice stands in stark contrast to that of something like Wikileaks, a “not-for-profit” site which unassumingly leaks raw documents and leaves readers and journalists to interpret them.
Frankly, the public should seek to get information about the Panama Papers directly rather than being forced to rely on articles by self-promoting journalistic entities.
The sensationalism of the Panama Papers is a dangerous development in journalism. Disturbingly, coverage is both reporting on and creating the news. Furthermore, it’s preying on the general public’s misunderstanding of financial issues — if people buy into the hype, it could have serious political consequences when they start demanding that their leaders react in certain ways.
In this case, the ICIJ is less of a “Global Muckraker” (as they sometimes call themselves) and more like yellow journalism. Overall, I’m deeply disappointed in how the media has handled the Panama Papers and how we’ve reacted to them.
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]