“INTERESTED in data?” It’s February 2015 and in Germany investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer is presented with what quickly becomes the most daunting yet satisfying challenge of his media career.
Obermeyer is at home one evening when an email arrives from an anonymous correspondent. The writer has something intriguing to offer: records detailing the day-to-day interactions of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. “Mossfon” is one of the world’s most active shell-company providers, generating the link that enables individuals and organisations in closely regulated jurisdictions to “go offshore” in order to conceal their business dealings from former spouses and government authorities alike.
In the ensuing weeks, Obermeyer accepts via encrypted channels of some 11.5 million documents in the world’s biggest ever corporate data leak. More than 214,000 companies are identified and politicians including presidents, prime ministers and dictators are implicated. The names “Putin”, “Cameron”, “al-Assad” and “Gaddafi” surface time and again.
Obermayer is unable to handle this volume of information single-handedly. His solution? To draft in newspaper colleague Frederik Obermaier and expand the search for collaborators around the globe, seeking input from two Australian contacts. Firstly, the “Brothers Obermay/ier” (in reality, they are no relation) approach Irish-Australian Gerard Ryle, head of the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists in Washington DC, who agrees to help assemble a worldwide team to scrutinise the rapidly mounting landslide of material. With Ryle’s assistance they then gain access to Nuix Investigator, sophisticated Australian forensic search software.
Soon almost 400 journalists are dissecting the data, and on April 3 2016 the resulting reports are rolled out simultaneously. It is a tsunami of financial disclosure on a scale not previously imagined, let alone seen.
In another context this could be the storyline of a new Bond thriller but there is nothing fictitious about the so-called Panama Papers and the clandestine machinations they reveal.