IT WILL by now be almost impossible to get to the front of the queue of any A-list restaurant, anywhere in the world, unless your name is among those listed in the Panama Papers. If you’re rich, really rich, and a crook to boot, you should surely be there.
A financial brothel of deceit and pleasure has been exposed in Panama — it will never be known for anything else. The Panama Papers will be a movie for sure.
This wasn’t a small leak, this was a tsunami. Documents were leaked on a grand scale — 11.5-million documents emerged out of the database of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which although a top-five “wholesaler of offshore secrecy”, was hardly heard of before this. Information on 215,000 companies, together with their shareholders and directors, in 2.6 terabytes of data has been leaked so far.
This wasn’t some kind of mistake, this was on purpose. As best I can tell, nobody has been paid or is even asking for money for the information (although, if they were, it would be into a secret offshore bank account with another law firm, no doubt) which means it’s a cause, a protest, a whistle-blowing.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network that investigates crimes across international borders, is in full swing.
I’m curious about the motivations of the various players in this mix. Why do whistle-blowers, on a grand scale, do what they do? Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, who has been stuck in the embassy of Ecuador in London for three years, was probably the modern times lead player for the now fashionable pastime of telling on, as we knew it. Everyone has been after him, even Interpol, and those movies are already out.
The next big-deal whistle blower was Edward Snowden, who got into the headlines for making public classified (love that word) information on the US surveillance programmes. I’m not sure where he is now, somewhere inhospitable and hidden, no doubt — the price you pay for telling tales.
So, what are the pros and cons of being a snitch? The defence is simple — you came across something that, in your judgment, was wrong and you felt compelled, in the public interest, to let everyone know. Fair enough. Well, how did you become privy to such secret information in the first place? Almost always as a result of a contract of trust.
When you sign up for the CIA, you surely to goodness know that you’re going to be exposed to the rules of engagement in an unfair game — the secrets and (dirty) tricks employed to deal with the enemy, some spying. If you don’t want to be a spy, don’t join the CIA. If you join the CIA, how can you condemn spying on the enemy — that’s what getting “intelligence” is all about, surely.
If you sign up to a law firm specifically advising people on how to hide money, ill-gotten or otherwise, legally or otherwise, then surely you are required to sign a confidentiality agreement? If you’re in the business of managing people’s secrets, then you know it. So don’t do it if you don’t like the territory.
Many a nondisclosure agreement is signed in the normal course of doing deals, protecting information that could compromise negotiations if leaked prematurely into the public domain. These secrets aren’t such a big deal and such arrangements may be described as virtuous and in the public interest.
The secrets in Panama must have required the mother of all client confidentiality agreements. Boom! That’s all over now. Never again will confidentiality be sacrosanct. I think the bad guys should be exposed, without exception. The question is, was everyone bad?
The higher someone’s sphere of influence, the higher the obligation to obey the law, morally and legally. Of course, there aren’t degrees of being law-abiding, but you know what I mean.
The prime minister of Iceland won’t be the last implicated leader required to fall on his sword.
One of the perhaps unintended consequences of leaders flouting the law is the implicit precedent for their subjects, drawn from the bad example they set, particularly if they get away with it. On balance, if you find incriminating evidence, you should make it public. We’re all agreed on that, right? If that’s true then we’re going to see a whole lot less of those big new buildings going up in Sandton.
Some people are just crooks, but what about the other side of the coin? Ignoring blood money in whatever form it may manifest, why do people and corporations stash money away in tax havens? Hiding money is not the preserve of crooks. Corporations as prestigious as Apple purposefully store money in more favourable tax jurisdictions, even if they have to borrow money in the US to fund operations. Of course, Apple doesn’t do it illegally. I suppose that’s the difference.
Well, if that is the difference, then all of the contracts legally entered into with Mossack Fonseca must be legally enforceable, damage clauses included. Without due cause, if you disclose someone else’s private life publicly, you have malice. At the root of all this are different legal and moral versions of acceptable financial behaviour, different rules about what is right or wrong. It is no trivial matter to consider whether a different law passed by a particular (democratically elected) government can criminalise its population. Exchange control is a classic example of government interference in the natural forces of cross-border funds flow. It is wrong, it can’t be justified and it will never be sustainable. Ask China.
People, particularly successful and otherwise powerful people, will not be contained in cages. Technology has rendered geographical and sovereign borders at least porous, if not irrelevant, to the flow of funds. Money is no longer only physically transported. Sooner or later assets will trade directly, legally or otherwise, without the need of banks, financial intermediaries and lawyers, maybe?
Certainly, if the integrity of personal information, good or bad, can no longer be protected, another way of keeping track will be worked out. That too will be discovered, and so the leapfrog game of it takes a thief to catch a thief will continue. Are cyberhackers virtuous?
The same technology that enables seamless transfers of information enables a seamless view of the tempting lives of the rich and famous. But rules are rules. What’s more, in a democracy, rules are the popular will of the people. If you don’t like the rules where you live, then you need to convince enough people to change them or move some place where you do, if they’ll have you.
In the world of money, the poor people are many, and they would love to catch the rich cheating, that’s just how it is.
In any case, you can’t break the law, silly, it’s the law.
• Barnes is South African Post Office CEO