sponsored links
TEDSummit

Gerard Ryle: How the Panama Papers journalists broke the biggest leak in history

June 26, 2016

Gerard Ryle led the international team that divulged the Panama Papers, the 11.5 million leaked documents from 40 years of activity of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that have offered an unprecedented glimpse into the scope and methods of the secretive world of offshore finance. Hear the story behind the biggest collaborative journalism project in history.

Gerard Ryle - Investigative journalist
As director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Gerard Ryle is one of the key figures behind the Panama Papers. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
What do you do if you had
to figure out the information
00:12
behind 11.5 million documents,
00:15
verify it and make sense of it?
00:17
That was a challenge
00:19
that a group of journalists
had to face late last year.
00:21
An anonymous person
calling himself John Doe
00:24
had somehow managed to copy
nearly 40 years of records
00:27
of the Panamanian law firm
Mossack Fonseca.
00:31
This is one of many firms around the world
00:35
that specialize in setting up accounts
in offshore tax havens
00:37
like the British Virgin Islands,
00:41
for rich and powerful people
who like to keep secrets.
00:43
John Doe had managed to copy
every spreadsheet from this firm,
00:48
every client file,
00:51
every email,
00:53
from 1977 to the present day.
00:54
It represented the biggest cache
00:58
of inside information
into the tax haven system
01:01
that anyone had ever seen.
01:03
But it also presented a gigantic challenge
to investigative journalism.
01:05
Think about it:
11.5 million documents,
01:11
containing the secrets of people
from more than 200 different countries.
01:16
Where do you start
with such a vast resource?
01:20
Where do you even begin to tell a story
01:22
that can trail off
into every corner of the globe,
01:24
and that can affect almost
any person in any language,
01:28
sometimes in ways
they don't even know yet.
01:31
John Doe had given the information
to two journalists
01:34
at the German newspaper
Süddeutsche Zeitung.
01:36
He said he was motivated
by -- and I quote --
01:40
"The scale of the injustice
that the documents would reveal."
01:43
But one user alone can never make sense
01:48
of such a vast amount of information.
01:50
So the Süddeutsche Zeitung reached out
01:52
to my organization in Washington, DC,
01:54
The International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists.
01:56
We decided to do something
that was the very opposite
02:01
of everything we'd been taught
to do as journalists:
02:04
share.
02:07
(Laughter)
02:08
By nature, investigative
reporters are lone wolves.
02:10
We fiercely guard our secrets,
02:13
at times even from our editors,
02:15
because we know that the moment
we tell them what we have,
02:17
they'll want that story right away.
02:20
And to be frank,
02:22
when you get a good story,
02:24
you like to keep the glory to yourself.
02:25
But there's no doubt
that we live in a shrinking world,
02:29
and that the media has largely
been slow to wake up to this.
02:32
The issues we report on
are more and more transnational.
02:35
Giant corporations operate
on a global level.
02:38
Environmental and health
crises are global.
02:42
So, too, are financial flows
and financial crises.
02:45
So it seems staggering
that journalism has been so late
02:49
to cover stories in a truly global way.
02:52
And it also seems staggering
that journalism has been so slow
02:55
to wake up to the possibilities
that technology brings,
02:58
rather than being frightened of it.
03:02
The reason journalists
are scared of technology is this:
03:05
the profession's largest institutions
are going through tough times
03:09
because of the changing way
that people are consuming news.
03:12
The advertising business models
that have sustained reporting are broken.
03:16
And this has plunged
journalism into crisis,
03:21
forcing those institutions
to reexamine how they function.
03:24
But where there is crisis,
03:30
there is also opportunity.
03:31
The first challenge presented
03:33
by what would eventually become
known as the Panama Papers
03:35
was to make the documents
searchable and readable.
03:38
There were nearly five million emails,
03:40
two million PDFs that needed
to be scanned and indexed,
03:43
and millions more files
and other kinds of documents.
03:46
They all needed to be housed
in a safe and secure location
03:49
in the cloud.
03:52
We next invited reporters
to have a look at the documents.
03:54
In all, reporters from more
than 100 media organizations
03:58
in 76 countries --
04:02
from the BBC in Britain
04:04
to Le Monde newspaper in France
04:06
to the Asahi Shimbun in Japan.
04:08
"Native eyes on native names,"
we called it, the idea being,
04:12
who best to tell you
who was important to Nigeria
04:16
than a Nigerian journalist?
04:19
Who best in Canada than a Canadian?
04:21
There were only two rules
for everyone who was invited:
04:24
we all agreed to share everything
that we found with everybody else,
04:27
and we all agreed to publish
together on the same day.
04:32
We chose our media partners based on trust
04:35
that had been built up through
previous smaller collaborations
04:37
and also from leads
that jumped out from the documents.
04:40
Over the next few months,
04:44
my small nonprofit organization
of less than 20 people
04:45
was joined by more than 350 other
reporters from 25 language groups.
04:48
The biggest information leak in history
04:53
had now spawned the biggest
journalism collaboration in history:
04:55
376 sets of native eyes doing
what journalists normally never do,
04:59
working shoulder to shoulder,
05:06
sharing information,
05:07
but telling no one.
05:09
For it became clear at this point
05:11
that in order to make
the biggest kind of noise,
05:13
we first needed
the biggest kind of silence.
05:15
To manage the project
over the many months it would take,
05:20
we built a secure virtual newsroom.
05:23
We used encrypted communication systems,
05:24
and we built a specially
designed search engine.
05:27
Inside the virtual newsroom,
05:30
the reporters could gather
around the themes
05:32
that were emerging from the documents.
05:34
Those interested in blood diamonds
or exotic art, for instance,
05:36
could share information about how
the offshore world was being used
05:41
to hide the trade in both
of those commodities.
05:45
Those interested in sport
could share information
05:47
about how famous sports stars
were putting their image rights
05:49
into offshore companies,
05:52
thereby likely avoiding taxes
05:54
in the countries
where they plied their trade.
05:56
But perhaps most exciting of all
05:59
were the number of world leaders
and elect politicians
06:01
that were emerging from the documents --
06:05
figures like Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine,
06:08
close associates
of Vladimir Putin in Russia
06:12
and the British Prime Minister,
David Cameron, who is linked
06:17
through his late father, Ian Cameron.
06:20
Buried in the documents
were secret offshore entities,
06:24
such as Wintris Inc.,
06:27
a company in the British Virgin Islands
06:30
that had actually belonged
to the sitting Icelandic prime minister.
06:32
I like to refer to Johannes Kristjansson,
06:36
the Icelandic reporter
we invited to join the project,
06:38
as the loneliest man in the world.
06:41
For nine months, he refused paid work
06:44
and lived off the earnings of his wife.
06:46
He pasted tarps
over the windows of his home
06:49
to prevent prying eyes
during the long Icelandic winter.
06:51
And he soon ran out of excuses
to explain his many absences,
06:55
as he worked red-eyed,
06:59
night after night,
07:00
month after month.
07:01
In all that time, he sat on information
07:03
that would eventually bring down
the leader of his country.
07:06
Now, when you're an investigative reporter
and you make an amazing discovery,
07:09
such as your prime minster can be linked
to a secret offshore company,
07:13
that that company has a financial
interest in Icelandic banks --
07:17
the very issue he's been elected on --
07:21
well, your instinct
is to scream out very loud.
07:24
Instead, as one of the few people
that he could speak to,
07:27
Johannes and I shared
a kind of gallows humor.
07:30
"Wintris is coming," he used to say.
07:34
(Laughter)
07:35
(Applause)
07:37
We were big fans of "Game of Thrones."
07:41
When reporters like Johannes
wanted to scream,
07:44
they did so inside the virtual newsroom,
07:47
and then they turned
those screams into stories
07:50
by going outside the documents
to court records,
07:52
official company registers,
07:56
and by eventually putting questions
to those that we intended to name.
07:57
Panama Papers actually allowed
the reporters to look at the world
08:02
through a different lens
from everybody else.
08:07
As we were researching the story,
08:09
unconnected to us,
08:11
a major political bribery scandal
happened in Brazil.
08:13
A new leader was elected in Argentina.
08:17
The FBI began to indict officials at FIFA,
08:20
the organization that controls
the world of professional soccer.
08:24
The Panama Papers
actually had unique insights
08:28
into each one of these unfolding events.
08:31
So you can imagine the pressure
and the ego dramas
08:33
that could have ruined
what we were trying to do.
08:36
Any of one of these journalists,
08:39
they could have broken the pact.
08:41
But they didn't.
08:42
And on April 3 this year,
08:44
at exactly 8pm German time,
08:45
we published simultaneously
in 76 countries.
08:48
(Applause)
08:52
The Panama Papers quickly became
one of the biggest stories of the year.
09:03
This is the scene in Iceland
the day after we published.
09:07
It was the first of many protests.
09:10
The Icelandic prime minister
had to resign.
09:12
It was a first of many resignations.
09:15
We spotlighted many famous people
such as Lionel Messi,
09:18
the most famous
soccer player in the world.
09:21
And there were some
unintended consequences.
09:24
These alleged members
of a Mexican drug cartel were arrested
09:27
after we published details
about their hideout.
09:30
They'd been using the address
09:34
to register their offshore company.
09:36
(Laughter)
09:38
There's a kind of irony
in what we've been able to do.
09:42
The technology -- the Internet --
that has broken the business model
09:45
is allowing us to reinvent
journalism itself.
09:49
And this dynamic is producing
09:52
unprecedented levels
of transparency and impact.
09:54
We showed how a group of journalists
can effect change across the world
09:57
by applying new methods
and old-fashioned journalism techniques
10:01
to vast amounts of leaked information.
10:05
We put all-important context
around what was given to us by John Doe.
10:08
And by sharing resources,
10:13
we were able to dig deep --
10:14
much deeper and longer than most
media organizations allow these days,
10:16
because of financial concerns.
10:20
Now, it was a big risk,
10:23
and it wouldn't work for every story,
10:24
but we showed with the Panama Papers
10:26
that you can write about any country
from just about anywhere,
10:28
and then choose your preferred
battleground to defend your work.
10:31
Try obtaining a court injunction
10:36
that would prevent the telling
of a story in 76 different countries.
10:37
Try stopping the inevitable.
10:42
Shortly after we published,
I got a three-word text from Johannes:
10:45
"Wintris has arrived."
10:49
(Laughter)
10:51
It had arrived and so, too, perhaps
has a new era for journalism.
10:53
Thank you.
10:57
(Applause)
10:58
Bruno Giussani: Gerard, thank you.
11:09
I guess you're going to send
that applause to the 350 journalists
11:11
who worked with you, right?
11:14
Now, a couple of questions
I would like to ask.
11:15
The first one is,
11:18
you'd been working
in secrecy for over a year
11:19
with 350-something colleagues
from all over the world --
11:21
was there ever a moment when you thought
11:25
that the leak may be leaked,
11:28
that the collaboration may just be broken
11:31
by somebody publishing a story?
11:33
Or somebody not in the group
releasing some information
11:35
that they got to know?
11:38
Gerard Ryle: We had a series
of crises along the way,
11:40
including when something major
was happening in the world,
11:42
the journalists from that country
wanted to publish right away.
11:45
We had to calm them down.
11:48
Probably the biggest crisis we had
was a week before publication.
11:49
We'd sent a series of questions
to the associates of Vladimir Putin,
11:52
but instead of responding,
11:56
the Kremlin actually held
a press conference and denounced us,
11:58
and denounced the whole thing
as being, I guess, a plot from the West.
12:01
At that point, Putin thought
it was just about him.
12:04
And, of course, a lot of editors
around the world
12:07
were very nervous about this.
12:10
They thought the story
was going to get out.
12:12
You can imagine the amount
of time they'd spent,
12:14
the amount of resources,
money spent on this.
12:16
So I had to basically spend
the last week calming everyone down,
12:18
a bit like a general,
where you're holding your troops back:
12:21
"Calm, remain calm."
12:24
And then eventually,
of course, they all did.
12:26
BG: And then a couple weeks ago or so,
12:29
you released a lot of the documents
as an open database
12:31
for everybody to search
via keyword, essentially.
12:35
GR: We very much believe
12:38
that the basic information
about the offshore world
12:40
should be made public.
12:42
Now, we didn't publish
the underlying documents
12:43
of the journalists we're working with.
12:46
But the basic information
such as the name of a person,
12:48
what their offshore company was
and the name of that company,
12:51
is now all available online.
12:53
In fact, the biggest resource
of its kind basically is out there now
12:55
BG: Gerard, thank you for the work you do.
13:00
GR: Thank you.
13:02
(Applause)
13:03

sponsored links

Gerard Ryle - Investigative journalist
As director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Gerard Ryle is one of the key figures behind the Panama Papers.

Why you should listen

Gerard Ryle is the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, DC.

When journalists at the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in Germany got hold of the documents from a whistleblower, their volume and complexity pushed them to turn to the ICIJ, which brought together 376 investigative journalists from more than 100 news organizations in 76 countries.

The reporters spent months collaborating in researching and checking the documents, using protected communication channels, bespoke search engines and other specialized tools built by ICIJ, and ICIJ coordinated the release of the information across the world. It was the biggest cross-border collaboration in journalism history. The Panama Papers resulted in resignations or political outcries in Britain, Iceland, Spain, Malta and Pakistan and triggered dozens of official inquires around the world.  

Before joining as the ICIJ's first non-American director in September 2011, Ryle spent more than 25 years working as an investigative reporter, author and editor in Australia and in Ireland. He has more than 60 journalism awards from six countries, including honors from the George Polk Awards, Harvard University and the University of Liege. Reporters Without Borders has described his work with ICIJ as "the future of investigative journalism worldwide." 

(Photo: Le Monde / Melissa Golden)

sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.