February 24, 2015

Even for an investigative team with global reach and huge ambitions, the last month has been extraordinary for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Two weeks ago Sunday, a joint investigation with “60 Minutes” on tax avoidance and money laundering at the Swiss private bank British giant HSBC aired.

Since then, Swiss authorities raided the bank for evidence of fraud, HSBC apologized in full-page ads in Britain and a prominent journalist at The Telegraph went public with his resignation, claiming the conservative daily downplayed the story as a favor to a prominent advertiser.

A week after the Swiss Leaks report, ICIJ won a George Polk award in the business category for a pair of 2014 projects, one on offshore investments by Chinese elites including parking their money in New York City real estate and the other revealing how Luxembourg operates as a tax avoidance haven.

More is in the pipeline — ICIJ expects to publish a story in March detailing how thousands of native peoples have been displaced by aid/development projects in third-world countries.

Three keys to ICIJ’s success may also explain its relative obscurity:

  • It picks stories for worldwide impact, so it has a higher profile internationally than its Washington D.C. home.
  • Most projects are based on huge data files, analyzed and sortable by country after months of work by a team based in Costa Rica. The latest HSBC file had more than 100,000 names.
  • The work is collaborative. For the HSBC story ICIJ supplemented its own staff of 10 with 140 journalists in 45 countries. Though it posts its own stories, the organization is comfortable sharing credit and letting cooperating papers and broadcast partners craft their distinctive versions.

“You need to park your ego when you work for us,” ICIJ’s director Gerard Ryle told me in a phone interview.  “We are sensitive about avoiding conflicts and rivalries,” among the member organizations, he added.

ICIJ did not spring full-grown just recently, although advances in data analysis and the momentum of its current successes certainly have added to its clout.

The consortium was started 18 years ago as an international arm of the Center for Public Integrity by CPI founder Charles Lewis and Bill Kovach, the prolific investigative editor. When Bill Buzenberg succeeded Lewis as CPI executive director in 2007, he made expanding ICIJ’s funding and reach a priority.

In 2011, he hired Ryle, an Irish-born journalist who spent most of his career in Australia (winning four Walkleys, the Aussie equivalent of the Pulitzers). Ryle began his ICIJ run with an exposé of trafficking in human corpses and built from there.

Buzenberg recently retired and is spending a semester at Harvard as a Shorenstein fellow, using his time there to research and write about successful collaborations. The ICIJ’s work, he told me, “has to be the largest of (journalism) collaborations anywhere.”

In the U.S, CPI is much better known than its international sibling, Buzenberg said; in Europe it is the reverse. Both he and Ryle said that it is also easier to find collaborators abroad than here. Leading U.S. news organizations, Ryle said, remain “skeptical of the concept of sharing.”

Case in point: The New York Times earlier this month published a five-part series on foreign investment in high-end real estate in the city.  The pieces were based entirely on the Times’ own reporting but followed the lead (without credit) of the earlier ICIJ offshore investments piece, a version of which ran in partnership with New York magazine last summer.

Individual journalists, who pass a vetting screen, may join as ICIJ as members. They and their organizations opt into projects of interest and may bolster their own stories with additional reporting.  In the HSBC story and related projects, what runs in Venezuela, for instance, will be a nationally focused slice of the bigger story.

The method leverages ICIJ’s annual budget of about $2 million (from philanthropic donors) to a much wider audience. Participating organizations pay their own reporters and any freelancers they may hire.  But it also runs at least some risk of a flawed version as the editing passes out of ICIJ’s control.

“I won’t tell you problems like that never happen,” Ryle said, “but generally it works to let them go their own way…Every country has its own style, its own laws.”  For instance, he said, German partners have covered the HSBC story without naming German nationals who hold accounts. That could be a violation of the country’s strict privacy laws.

The HSBC project has a long backstory. It started when a whistleblower named Hervé Falciani provided a stolen copy of the files in 2008 to the French government. Those were in turn leaked to Le Monde and first-wave coverage led to a number of investigations, including one by a U.S. Senate subcommittee.  HSBC promised to reform its practices.

Le Monde concluded last spring that it did not have the resources to pursue the investigation world-wide and made the files available to ICIJ.

In England, the investigative target is a huge business institution (the world’s second largest bank by some measures) so regulatory response has been a running public issue for years now.

Buzenberg also thinks a story on potential tax evasion has particular resonance in Europe where austerity programs are common and thus the notion of the rich hiding their money is especially offensive.

One more twist, Ryle told me, is that competing Swiss newspapers shared the story and created a common website, perhaps adding to “internal pressure”  for Swiss regulators to step in, rather than defend the country’s tradition of banking secrecy.

ICIJ develops stories over a long period and then sets a common release date. For a rich corporation like HSBC, framing a response in one country at a time may be feasible but getting hit all at once by media from 40 nations is much tougher.

Ryle and Buzenberg both reminded me that while the work may draw the occasional threat of a lawsuit here it is much more perilous to some of the international collaborators. A Hong Kong editor on the China elite story lost his job and soon after was attacked on the street with meat cleavers (he is recovering, and a connection of the assault to the story has not been proven).

Buzenberg tipped me to the story because of a project I did with Amy Mitchell of the Pew Research Center in December with case studies of five successful news partnerships. The ICIJ takeaway is the much larger scale version of what several principals in those projects told us: Even in an era of drastically tightened resources, you can get a whole lot done if you are not fussy about getting all the credit.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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