Hard News by Russell Brown


Forgetting what we didn't know

The Panama Papers have been a "big, fat, flop" which has "told us nothing new" writes Duncan Garner in a column today. This might come as news to the former Prime Minister of Iceland, who vacated his post last month in response to public anger at the revelation that his family had been hiding assets offshore.

But even if we narrow the point to just New Zealand's role in the story, let's not forget what we didn't know in March. As far as can be told, no senior New Zealand poltiicians have money in secret offshore trusts (and if they did, you'd assume they have taken swift steps to remedy that situation). But New Zealand is one of 21 jurisdictions identified in Mossack Fonseca's documents as tax havens.

Garner points out that a 60 Minutes investigation in 2012 – fronted by Guyon Espiner! – revealed that New Zealand had become a host for trusts holding money for foreign interests in places like Peru. Then-Revenue minister Peter Dunne might want to cringe a bit now at his stout defence of "legitimate tax avoidance".

But we didn't know the scale of the business here, and more especially about the rapid increase in the flow of money into New Zealand-based entities in the last three years, which Dunne is now describing as an "explosion". Dunne says he was never alerted to this increase. (One might observe that Dunne could have asked, especially after the 60 Minutes report.) Importantly, other countries, including our trading partners, know that New Zealand may be helping people hide money from their taxation systems, and actually trading on its clean reputation in doing so.

We also know important things that have been derived from reporting on the papers, rather than directly from the Panama Papers themselves. Most notably (thanks to an OIA request by the Green Party) that IRD dropped a proposal to review New Zealand's foreign trust regulations. And that it did so after the then Revenue minister Todd McClay was lobbied by an industry group that included Ken Whitney, who is John Key's personal legal advisor. We know that Whitney cited a conversation with the Prime Minister in doing so. And that the lobby group was desperate to avoid a public review, suggesting the establishment of a register of interests in trusts instead. We know that the government didn't even bother to do that.

For that matter, we know about Ken Whitney himself, enough to think that it might be handy to know more.

Garner ventured on Twitter that Whitney was the only real story so far from the papers. But that happened nearly a month after the Panama Papers first broke. To declare, as Garner's colleague Patrick Gower did yesterday, that the investigations of RNZ, TVNZ and Nicky Hager on the Panama Papers, had failed to "land a punch" on the government was rather missing the point. It was the way two Press Gallery reporters would see things. And possibly the kind of thing employees of a company that has shed most of its investigative capacity would say.

On the other hand, it's true that there was no showstopping scandal in yesterday's reports. And, to be honest, the reporters have also had trouble  clearly telling their stories. Not quite as much trouble as the Prime Minister, who has given  contradictory accounts of his interactions with Whitney, but trouble nonetheless. It's a story in need of an overview and some infographics.

But the urge for journalists and the expectation of their audience is always for a smash hit, as if typing a few characters into the Panama Papers database was going to write tomorrow's headline. It's worth a try, but it won't.

But the database already tells us some more subtle things. For instance, while it lists only 47 Mossack Fonseca-connected offshore entities in New Zealand, there are 547 in the Cook Islands, 9611 in Niue and 13,418 in Samoa. As Jason Brown points out in tonight's Media Take, the structures of the South Pacific's secret financial systems have generally been built by New Zealanders. We can tut about the Pacific, but it's really us. Given the sanctions places like the Cooks place on local reporting, it's actually incumbent on New Zealand journalists to look there too.

So, let's see. And in the meantime, try not to forget what we didn't know before.

UPDATE: Reader Tom Dale accepted the challenge of finding the 2012 60 Minutes report on the TV3 website. He found the video, but it has been set to private. And that seems clearly related to this extraordinary statement in the show's blog. It appears that even saying the words "tax haven" was legally perilous four years ago. It looks like the Panama Papers have made a bigger difference than we realised.


Jason Brown and Gavin Ellis discuss the story so far in tonight's Media Take, at 10pm on Maori Television. The show was recorded lat night, so we didn't have the benefit of knowing what the database has revealed, but I think it's a worthwhile chat.

The show also features a report on MediaWorks' own reality show and a discussion of the forthcoming Bravo channel's prospects with Gavin and Alex Casey of The SpinOff. It's Alex's first TV appearance. I can say with the utmost confidence it will not be her last.

82 responses to this post

First ←Older Page 1 2 3 4 Newer→ Last

First ←Older Page 1 2 3 4 Newer→ Last

Post your response…

This topic is closed.