It’s undeniable that the Panama Papers – the world’s biggest ever data leak at more than 2TB worth of documents – has enhanced our knowledge of the extent of global corruption. But considering the rampant use of offshore tax havens by Western multinational companies and individuals, there is a critical gap in the revelations.
Where are the British and American names?
First past the post
There is one significant UK name on everyone’s lips. British mainstream outlets such as the Mirror and the Telegraph have run the story that our Prime Minister’s father Ian Cameron used ‘offshore’ to protect his wealth from due and fair taxation. The Canary was one of the first to report it on the morning of April 4th. Later in the day, The Guardian ran the story as a headline.
This is a huge blow to the Prime Minister, having openly denounced tax avoidance as ‘morally wrong’ and promised a clampdown. He is also planning an ‘offshore summit’ in May to further tackle a practice that has played a part in securing his own fortune.
When asked for comment, Downing Street said that the PM’s family finances are a “private matter”. But other than a few other elderly Tories, no further British names have been mentioned. And zero American names appear in the reports. Yet, the statistics say that vast numbers of Westerners are implicated.
A picture says a thousand words
It’s by no means conspiratorial of the ICIJ not to foreground the US or UK. Indeed their previous ‘Luxembourg Leaks’ singled out some of the biggest US offenders in the European tax haven. However, unless there is a significant ‘occidental’ turnaround of the information this time, the public’s attention is being significantly skewed to ignore our ‘power players’.
However, the ICIJ’s graphical data shows British and US firms topping the lists of those involved in using this particular company to avoid tax. In numbers of ‘intermediaries‘ – go-betweens brokering deals between home companies and offshore providers – the UK is the third most active. The UK and the US are second and fourth respectively in a list of countries where intermediaries operate.
The most high-profile names of the initial reports, such as Russian President Putin and Syrian President Assad, are from countries far further down those lists.
It’s true that they are public figures, and demonstrate the heights at which money is concentrated in their respective countries. But given the graph data, and what we know of the wealth disparities in Britain and the US, it could easily be argued that the endemic spread of corruption and maintenance of financial inequality is far more significant in ‘our own backyard’.
Focusing on particularly visible world leaders also overshadows the corporate leaders operating ‘behind the curtain’, and often with just as much, if not more, power.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German paper who were first to be contacted by the anonymous whistleblower, explains that the structure of the investigation by journalists used search terms and pre-compiled lists of names that foregrounded countries already hit with UN sanctions, or political leaders involved in party donations scandals, for example. The CPI and ICIJ, funded by a number of highly influential foundations, are based in the US.
Already, it’s being asked whether or not this easterly slant foregrounding Putin, Middle Eastern countries and other enemies of the West is influenced by the positioning and/or funding of the ICIJ, and whether the Western media are protecting their own.
All considered however, US companies and individuals will be escaping illumination largely due to the country’s political history, rather than a lack of involvement in offshore tactics.
The US has had a ‘tax-information exchange agreement’ since 2010, and volatile political relations since its conflict over ownership of the Panama Canal in 1977 – coincidentally, the same year as Mossack Fonseca, the law firm in question, was formed. As political commentator Eoin Higgins points out:
Americans do not feel comfortable storing their ill-gotten gains in the Central American country […] Storing cash, data, and legal information in a country that could easily become the target of a US intervention was not a prudent move.
He goes on to point out that, of course:
It’s equally possible that Americans are using one or more of the other three top firms involved in this kind of work.
If Americans are not named or implicated in this leak, it will have more to do with the uniqueness of the US- Panamanian relationship and less to do with the morality- real or perceived- of the US and its power brokers.
The revelation of corruption within other countries must not obscure the endemic corruption of London and New York, arguably the global heart of finance, for the Western media. We need them to hold our entire system of power – political and corporate – to account if we are ever to achieve lasting change in our divided society.
The revolving doors of power are constantly illustrated in our own leadership, proven again by our Prime Minister’s being complicit in something he claims to be tackling. This is cold hard evidence of the ‘legal’ way inequality persists and power is ringfenced. More information will come, but if not quickly it may well have far less of an impact once the public have ‘moved on’ to more current affairs.
Companies hiding their wealth via companies other than Mossack Fonseca shouldn’t be allowed to remain hidden. We must focus on our economic and financial systems, rather than individuals. The ‘bad apple’ rhetoric is getting old.
– Watch this video from the ICIJ.
– Have a look at the ICIJ’s documents here.
– Write to your MP about tackling offshore tax havens.
– Support The Canary so we can keep holding the rich and powerful to account.
Featured image via Defence Images/flickr
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