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Investigation lifts the veil on secretive bank system


Elle MacPherson is one of the high-profile celebrities with legitimate accounts.

Elle MacPherson is one of the high-profile celebrities with legitimate accounts.

Elle MacPherson is one of the high-profile celebrities with legitimate accounts.

An estimated 185 specialist reporters in more than 65 countries collaborate on in-depth stories as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The organisation, founded in 1997, specialises in what it calls "watchdog journalism".

It is particularly concerned with issues that span national frontiers such as trans-national crime and corruption.

The ICIJ says it is able to call on extensive back-up facilities, such as computer-assisted reporting specialists, legal expertise, and public records experts.

The organisation also maintains, that for a variety of reasons, its work is more vital that ever.

An increasingly globalised world has increasing societal pressures.

There are also "unprecedented threats" from polluting industries, trans-national crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.

It also argues that the news media is restrained by "short attention spans" among consumers.

Another major problem is lack of resources for in-depth investigative journalism. It said sometimes media outlets are often no match for the power of those who are willing to harm the public interest.

"Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most," said the ICIJ in a statement.

"Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams - eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world's best cross-border investigative team," it said.

"The ICIJ is a non-profit organisation. We give our work away for free. We rely heavily on charitable foundations and on financial support from the public. Without your help, we cannot exist."

In its latest expose, the ICIJ says it has "lifted the veil on a secretive banking system". It says the secret documents uncovered relating to global banking giant HSBC will help the public understand "the perils and the potential downside of so much secrecy.

The documents show the bank was involved in hiding hundreds of millions of dollars from tax authorities.

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The ICIJ says the data includes the bank records of famous soccer and tennis players, cyclists, rock stars, Hollywood actors, royalty, politicians, corporate executives and old-wealth families. It said the disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business.

"They dramatically expand what's known about potentially illegal or unethical behaviour in recent years at HSBC, one of the world's largest banks. The Consortium is at the forefront of exposing global tax avoidance, a problem world leaders recognize as a factor in growing inequality," said Peter Bale, chief executive of the Centre for Public Integrity.

The Swiss Leaks files are based on information obtained by Hervé Falciani (inset), a former HSBC employee who became a whistleblower.

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