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Pandora Papers: Has data leak journalism gone too far?

The latest major offshore data leak highlights the need for greater regulatory oversight when it comes to reporting on stolen data.

The latest data leak describing the financial affairs of the world’s political elite and super rich is yet another demonstration of how little has been achieved in reining in offshore tax avoidance.

The huge leak of data is the largest to date, eclipsing both the Panama and Paradise Papers. Whilst these leaks all raise attention to the fact that governments have much left to do in order to clamp down on how the global elite use offshore finance and tax havens, so far the Pandora Papers have demonstrated no illegal or criminal behaviour. In fact, the only criminal behaviour is the theft of the confidential data in the first place. It is this failure to expose any tax evasion that leaves many wondering what purpose the leak serves beyond revealing embarrassing details and gossip about the rich and powerful. The fundamental question is whether the reporting on these leaks is justified or if some media organisations have gone too far.

The issue of data privacy and the extent to which often anonymous third parties have access to confidential details of our lives has been a topic high on political and cultural agendas over recent years. The covid pandemic has only heightened the anxiety of many about how their data is shared and the risk this presents for them personally.

The media justify their use of stolen data on the basis they are exposing what they deem to be inadequacies in how the global financial system functions. The key message here is that the myriad of offshore structures and companies used by the named individuals are not illegal and they are not ‘loopholes’, they are all entirely legal. If the use of these methods are so abhorrent then surely every company or individual using these structures must be placed under the same scrutiny. The simple fact is there isn’t a major high street name that doesn’t employ some form of offshore finance, not to mention the fact that two of the UK’s largest supermarkets are now owned by private equity giants reliant on the offshore world to structure their financial dealings. The current laws are a policy choice, if governments want to change them they can.

Every business and individual has confidential information, some more than others. This is not a revelation. If during a robbery of a high street business thieves swiped the contents of a filing cabinet containing confidential information on customers the contents would not be treated as fair game for all and sundry. The customer details are stolen, the physical files belong to the business and the data to the customers. Law enforcement and regulators would treat the contents in the same way they would treat any other stolen items.

As the reporting on the Pandora Papers continues, there is the question of what happens to the data once the reporting is done. Will the ICIJ and its various media partners try to claim they have a right to hold on to it in perpetuity? Will they attempt some major online data dump? We are all left asking at what point do the various data regulators and other authorities with oversight step in and treat these types of data leaks as they would any other data theft.

Why is it that regulators allow media organisations to trawl through these stolen records and report on anything they see fit but pursue the perpetrators of ransomware attacks? This is especially hard to justify when there is a failure to demonstrate any actual wrong doing. Most people would agree that behaving in accordance with the letter of the law should not be subject to such aggressive and wanton invasions of privacy. The law does not apply to different degrees to different people. We might not like, respect or condone the actions of the individuals named in the Pandora Papers but our very freedoms and societal values rely on the fact the law applies to them in the same way it does to us.

There comes a point when we must say enough is enough and begin to rein in this move towards unrestrained reporting on illegally obtained information without regulators more rigorously challenging the media’s claims to be acting in the public interest. The precedent being set is a potential threat to us all and it is time for greater regulatory oversight.