15 May 2016

Panama Papers out in the open - and back in the news

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 15 May 2016

The Panama Papers were back in the headlines this week when a team of New Zealand journalists with access to the full set of documents released their findings.

John Key on TV3's Paul Henry show on the morning the joint investigation into The Panama Papers was revealed.

John Key on TV3's Paul Henry show on the morning the joint investigation into The Panama Papers was revealed. Photo: screenshot

"There are just six days to go," said TV3's Political editor Patrick Gower on Newshub at 6, back on the 3rd of May, as he looked forward to a section of the Panama Papers going online on Tuesday of this past week.

The person who leaked the Panama Papers would have approved of his enthusiasm and interest.

Last weekend the leaker - calling himself John Doe’ - released a statement saying he was underwhelmed by official reaction to the leak so far and singled out John Key  - alone among world’s leaders - as one who hadn’t stepped up.  

Having been called out by John Doe, John Key was called out of the National Party conference last weekend - to tell reporters it was wrong to accuse him of enabling a "financial fraud Mecca" in the Cook Islands.

Meanwhile, the New Zealander who heads the US organisation overseeing the Panama Papers release said there was plenty to come which would interest Kiwis. Peter Bale, who leads the Centre for Public Integrity told TV3's The Nation New Zealand's foreign trust rules were known around the world to be loose.  

Meanwhile, The Australian Financial Review's Neil Chenowith - who already had access to the Panama Papers - wrote a piece naming some Mossack Fonseca clients pushing money into “the tax-free obscurity of some New Zealand foreign trusts”.  

All this added to the expectation of juicy headlines to come when a selection of the Panama Papers hit the web at 6am on Tuesday.

Teamed up behind closed doors

But 24 hours before the release, RNZ and TVNZ revealed  their reporters, along with investigative journalist Nicky Hager, had already gained access to the full set of Panama Papers and had been scanning the data.

Journalists from big media outfits don't usually work together on scoops - especially where secrecy is vital - but Hager told Nine to Noon the collaboration was working well.

The first reveal was about the big picture. Details and names would come later, Hager said. But on one big question, he had no doubt:

"What the Panama Papers show conclusively is that New Zealand is functioning as a tax haven," he told every media outlet that asked him.

No-show on game day

The day RNZ, TVNZ and Hager unveiled their first story, Prime Minister John Key refused to be interviewed on RNZ's Morning Report, despite usually appearing on the show on a Monday morning. He did, however, go through with a Breakfast interview at TVNZ and he appeared on Paul Henry’s show.

"Just because Nicky Hager says it is a tax haven doesn't mean it is. With the greatest of respect, he is the biggest conspiracy theorist out there," Mr Key said.

Henry told Mr Key he was battling against "perception  - and in politics perception is reality."

Of course, the point of accessing the Panama Papers was to work out what was real, not just what was perceived. 

Rushing to judgment

When the Panama Papers story first broke last month, Newstalk ZB's morning host Mike Hosking told his listeners those who claimed New Zealand was a tax haven were “only after a cheap headline.”

screenshot of Mike Hosking opinion piece.

Mike Hosking accuses journalist of beating up New Zealand's involvement in The Panama Papers. Photo: screenshot

Little more than an hour after TVNZ, RNZ and Hager's revealed their first story Hosking had decided they were wasting their time. 

"They've found nothing," he said. "They should wrap it up and move on".  

His contention was if no crime had been revealed, it wasn’t a story.

But he did seem to change his mind on the tax haven question.

On ZB, he said there were people with money in trusts looking to pay no tax, but pointed out that wasn't illegal. 

"So does it technically become a haven from tax?" Hosking asked himself. The answer, I suppose, technically, is yes".

More criticism

On Thursday The Press said international media had "overpromised and underdelivered".

"The release of the Panama Papers had all the stealth and planning of a top secret worldwide album launch by Radiohead or Beyonce but this time the product was disappointing," the newspaper said.

Of the disclosures about New Zealanders, The Press said "the fruit was so low-hanging, it was on the ground". 

TV3 and Radio Live presenter Duncan Garner called the Panama Papers “a big fat flop”.

Allegations New Zealand was a tax shelter had already been made by TV3's 60 Minutes way back in 2012, he pointed out.

It was indeed - in an epsiode called Treasure Island. But if you go looking for that online, you won't find it. Instead you find a long response to the programme where the video used to be. The statement says having 8,300 foreign trusts in New Zealand (at the time) didn't make New Zealand a tax haven. Did someone call in the lawyers?

Back in 2012, the New Zealand Herald said the then Revenue Minister Peter Dunne dismissed the idea that New Zealand was a tax haven.

But this week, Mr Dunne told RNZ the "explosion" of foreign trusts in New Zealand should have set alarm bells ringing at the Inland Revenue Department, and he questioned why it was never flagged with him during his eight years as Revenue Minister.

It's certainly been flagged now, and so has the fact that Mossack Fonseca was telling prospective clients New Zealand was a good place to move money to because it has such a good reputation. 

Police Minister Judith Collins attended an anti-corruption summit in London on Friday and promised to step up the fight against corruption and money laundering, and to boost transparency.

That wouldn't have happened without the Panama Papers - and reporters prepared to look into them.

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*The investigation into New Zealand links in the Panama Papers is a journalistic collaboration by reporters from RNZ News, One News and investigative journalist Nicky Hager, and with the assistance of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.