Book review – The Panama Papers

‘Interested in data?  I’m happy to share.’  That was how it all started.  The Panama Papers were the biggest leak in history, dwarfing the so-called Wikileaks of 2010.   The former were so-called because of the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the leak, Mossack Fonseca.  The leak of April 2016 shines a spotlight on the use of offshore tax havens and the use of shell companies for the purposes of tax evasion, and providing anonymity to the real (or ‘beneficial’) owners of companies, some of whom wouldn’t want tax and law enforcement agencies catching up with them.  The source of the leaks remains unknown, even to the journalists at the receiving end of the leak, Msrs Obermayer and Obermaier of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany.

Obermayer/maier took it upon themselves to write about their journey from that innocuous first text to the co-ordinated worldwide publication of stories relating to billions of pounds secreted away in tax havens.  The Obermayer/maiers take us through their findings, which include a dozen national leaders using offshore tax havens; Mossack Fonseca representing the interests of numerous individuals listed on sanctions lists; a $2bn trail leading to Vladamir Putin, etc.

While this is all very interesting, it is at the same time unsurprising that this kind of activity is going on. What I found more interesting was how this team of two evolved into a global effort to unearth the secrets of 11.5 million documents.  How do you even go about managing 2,600 GB of information (wikileaks saw 1.7 GBs leaked)?  It’s hard enough managing the storage on my iPad!

Some of the reviews I’ve read suggest that the book ‘reads like a thriller’.  I don’t agree at all.  I found it to be quite a turgid read; interesting but ultimately lacking in pace.  A good thriller pushes and pulls you through the book, as the denouement approaches.  In this case, however, we conclude with the publication of the revelations surrounding Mossack Fonseca and tax havens rather than the ultimate outcomes of these revelations.  While it’s unfair to compare the book to a thriller, and I’m not aware that either journalist has even suggested that the book was like a thriller, it really would have benefited from being published later, once the outcomes of investigations were clearer.  Else, it’s arguably a book about the process of managing a leak and a list of accusations and evidence.  Of course, given the time it takes to investigate such cases it’s perhaps unsurprising that they decided to publish the book when they did.

Published in 2017 and at around 400 pages in length I wouldn’t recommend this as a casual read.  You can find out about the Panama Paper from Wikipedia or The Guardian (which was involved in the investigative efforts) in a fraction of the time it takes to read the book.  If you do want to read it, it may be worthwhile waiting for a future edition (whenever that may be, if ever), which might include an appendix on what’s happened since the original date of publication.