Monday 24 October 2016

James Downey: Media has put up with too much for too long - Panama Papers herald a revolution

Published 15/04/2016 | 02:30

David Cameron. Photo: Reuters
David Cameron. Photo: Reuters

Who says you never hear any good news? The exposure of the Panama Papers to the daylight was terrific news. And it could get better. Through these last weeks, I have lived in a permanent state of excitement. It derives less from the story itself than from its origins.

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All through my own life, and those of other old hands in the trade, we have had to put up with countless obstacles, from lack of money to out-of-date laws which hindered the practice of journalism.

The people who have investigated the Panama Papers have not changed everything, but they have opened up the possibility, or rather probability, of radical change.

The investigation was launched by an international consortium headed by an Irishman, Gerard Ryle, and supported by an excellent German newspaper, 'Suddeutsche Zietung'. All the organisers knew what they faced, including late-night work, long delays and very likely, colossal expenses.

They have produced a result that deserves the term revolutionary, in its achievements and in its potential.

As the trade knows very well, and greatly to its cost, both the print and broadcasting media have put up with far too much for far too long.

The solution, very properly, has emerged from within the profession. Now we can hope, and with some confidence, for the transparency and the other benign developments that will follow if we continue on the right road, on the one hand, asserting the freedom of the press, and on the other hand, attacking the secrecy and outright corruption that characterise the world financial scene.

Over recent decades, the system has grown murkier and murkier, to the point where the role of offshore tax havens has seemed to become a permanent feature maintained by the participants, big and small, in the markets.

All around the world, supposedly sovereign governments tamely adopt practices dictated by those more powerful than themselves. Now, we must set about cleaning the Augean Stables that have resulted. The extent of the malpractices have not yet been revealed with anything approaching accuracy, but the clues multiply.

To take the Panama Papers alone, we read they number more than 100 million documents. The names on the list include several 'world leaders'" and celebrities of numerous kinds. Of these, the name of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was possibly the most predictable. But a greater number would have fallen into the category - now happily in danger of abolition - of 'squeaky clean'.

Of these, the most startling must be the family of David Cameron (right). A few years ago, he lost a campaign against tax evasion and "aggressive" tax avoidance. Now his family stands accused of such practices.

I find it very hard to believe that the British Prime Minister did anything wrong, to say nothing of anything illegal. But the mere fact that the accusation could arise has told us more than we had ever guessed about the way the world is run. In Ireland, we have a special kind of insight into this area.

In the aftermath of the financial crash, European governments, especially those of Ireland and Greece, felt the heavy hands of the real holders of power like the ECB and the IMF.

These grew a little lighter with the 'monetary easing' introduced by Mario Draghi, but the legacy remains.

Doubtless, you remember Yanis Varoufakis from that period. For a while, he must have been the most unpopular man in the world. He was condemned almost daily and usually quite unfairly for taking a different view from that held by the Great Ones of the Earth.

But as finance minister of Greece, he gained a respect which in my view, he thoroughly deserved.

Since then, he has not lost his wit or his sharp tongue. Lately, he has come up with an interesting idea.

He blames the international decision (back in the 1920s, if my memory serves me right) to abandon the system of fixed exchange rates and let the chips fall where they might. Now we know where the chips fell. A depressing piece of information.

An interesting idea, and not the only one in the fertile Greek mind. We have to ask ourselves if perhaps he was right then and is right now.

Irish people, and other people familiar with Irish affairs, might usefully ask themselves some tough questions. He views Ireland as sharply and as aptly as he views his own country.

We might very well end up agreeing with him when he calls our own country a "model prisoner".

Not too harsh, perhaps when you take into account our eagerness to comply with the demands of our masters.

Clearly the time has come for a completely new system, led by Gerard Ryle and marked by total transparency and stripped legality. That will not happen any time soon.

But unless it does happen, the world will remain divided between rich and poor, a system with built-in unfairness and built-in secrecy.

All these developments have occurred at a time when we face enormous threats, domestic and foreign.

We are badly prepared to meet all or any of them. A month ago, you and I would have said that surely we can rely on the new Dáil. No longer. Instead, we wonder what kind of government the new (and old) deputies will give us.

Or whether they want one at all.

Irish Independent

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