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Pandora Papers Value Headlines over Fair Treatment


The release of the so-called “Pandora Papers” by a huge consortium of self-congratulating journalists would have been a useful step against corruption — had these journalists put fighting corruption above seeking headlines. Instead, they have besmirched the names of a number of world leaders for no apparent reason other than seeking self-justifying attention.

The “Pandora Papers” were released Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and they detail the use of complex off-shore financial arrangements by hundreds of politicians. In some cases, this is important work. For example, when a leader of a corrupt dictatorial regime loots his country’s central bank and seeks to hide the money overseas, investigative journalism has an ideal target.

But that wasn’t juicy enough for these journalists. They went after former British prime minister Tony Blair, despite the fact that neither they nor anyone else has ever found a scintilla of evidence that his own wealth was not lawfully earned after leaving office. They went after the King of Jordan, as if it were shocking that the King has bought residential properties in the United States and United Kingdom — and again without presenting the slightest evidence that he had illegally taken public funds. They went after other public officials whose main offense is that they’re rich — such as Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, who was a billionaire when elected to office. It never seems to occur to these journalists that one reason rich politicians hide their money is to avoid populist appeals to voters, or mean-spirited and ideological efforts to tie that money up.

It does seem worth mentioning that the leak of all these documents must be illegal; in what jurisdictions may financial and legal advisers send private papers to journalists? These proud journalists are trading in stolen property, and no doubt justify this to themselves by noting that the theft was from rich people and public figures. That’s an interesting moral code.

But passing that, the publication of the papers in many newspapers — the Washington Post is a fine example — is accompanied by photographs of the properties that make their location easy to find for a would-be kidnapper or assassin. I don’t know how our moral guides at the Post and other journals justify doing this, but the real motive is clear: to punch up the stories with photos of fancy houses and compete with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Tony Blair has repeatedly been harassed on the streets of London; now he can be harassed even more. Anyone looking for an opportunity to go after a member of the Hashemite royal family of Jordan now has a far better chance. Publicizing such information has been done to sell papers, not to fight corruption.

The need to fight corruption is clear, but so is the need to define it. Blair got much richer after leaving office, but so did Barack Obama — and he’s likely the richer man of the two. If King Abdullah of Jordan is providing havens for his family in case of future trouble using family funds and legal overseas accounts, who can blame him? What these investigative journalists have done is to grab publicity for themselves at the cost of muddying what is corruption and what is not. They will no doubt win all sorts of prizes for their work, but let’s hope there are serious journalists out there more interested in going after corruption than in getting headlines.

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