From Panama Papers to Paradise Papers: how journalism derived from information to communications
As the Paradise Papers leak made the front page of the media about a month ago, one has to admit that these disclosures on tax avoidance schemes did not trigger so many reactions among the general public. At a time when a bad buzz is so easily set off, how to explain so little interest for the incriminated companies’ maneuvers?
NOTHING TO DECLARE
Although blamable, tax optimization is not illegal. The multinationals that create shadow corporations to illegal and criminal ends must be condemned. The British bank HSBC recently decided to pay €300 million to avoid any legal suit in France for “tax fraud laundering”. But tax fraud is not to be confused with tax avoidance, which is what the Paradise Papers leak is about. That is a big difference, for Panama Papers revealed fraudsters or alleged fraudsters, whereas the Paradise Papers leak only sheds light on legal tax structuring.
The companies and people mentioned in the Paradise Papers, be they Apple, Stephen Bronfman (one of Justin Trudeau’s close friends) or Bernard Arnaud, were quick to dismiss any accusation by claiming legality. “The assets that the consortium of journalists evoked were structured in a totally legal fashion, and they are known to fiscal authorities” Bernard Arnaud stated to the AFP.
Another element prevented the scandal from taking off: big firms’ tax-optimization strategies are no new topic. The revelation is everything but one, and given that tax structuring is legal, it is easy to understand why the general public did not comment much on Paradise Papers. In the end, the incriminated parties benefited from a general resignation, to some extent.
A COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY CAREFULLY CRAFTED BY JOURNALISTS…
In order to present its subject, which investigation required to denounce legal structures by analyzing an enormous amount of tedious information, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) chose an aggressive communications strategy: the storytelling of these disclosures. With impressive figures as narrative elements in the story: 400 journalists and whistle blowers cooperated in 65 countries to analyze 13 million documents. The journalists told the story of a fight against organized crime, a fight of which they are the heroes, valiantly struggling for transparency against the forces of evil.
… BUT TO WHICH THE ESSENTIAL IS MISSING
The failure of this strategy makes a good point about how communications alone are not enough. Communications support action and contextualize problems and situations, but they should never replace doing or make up for a lack of meaning. The ICJ journalists may have learned it this time.