News or ad break?

“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed, everything else is advertising,” one of the USA’s most famous publisher’s, William Randolph Hearst, said. The incompetence and wilful neglect that Greek authorities have shown over the last few years with regards to investigating a list of Greeks with large amounts deposited in the Geneva branch of HSBC suggests that it contains information some people don’t want to be printed.

Journalist Costas Vaxevanis and his Hot Doc magazine have decided to test this theory by publishing the list of names supposedly on the CD given to the Greek government by French officials in 2010. That the details provided on the CD were not investigated for more than two years is a scandal. It is compounded by the fact that two finance ministers – Giorgos Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos – failed to ensure that the data was utilized and that two heads of the financial crimes squad (SDOE) – Yiannis Diotis and Yiannis Kapeleris – failed to ascertain whether there were any tax evaders on the list.

Papaconstantinou’s admission to a parliamentary committee this week that the list had been lost and Venizelos producing the memory stick containing the list from his drawer when people started asking questions about it a few weeks ago have added to the farcical nature of it all. There is also something comical about the swift decision to issue an arrest warrant for Vaxevanis by a judicial system famed for its inability to act quickly. It is noticeable that authorities have been less inclined to act when privacy rules have been broken in the past.

Nevertheless, Vaxevanis must face questions about whether he has breached the privacy of those whose names he published. He surely considered the implications of his decision before publishing and has his defense well-prepared. Whatever the case, the response to those who cover up incessantly cannot be to implicate indiscriminately. True investigative journalism never had this role.

Investigative journalism is a rare and priceless service, a dying art that is being extinguished by the fading of traditional news organisations and the changing business model in the media. Journalism as a public service is losing out to “churnalism” as a public relations exercise.

Reporters with the ability to really unearth the facts, no matter how damaging or controversial they might be, are a rare breed. In Greece – where independent voices in the media have gradually been drowned out by those who are compromised – investigative journalist could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, which is why so many people have understandably leapt to Vaxevanis’s defense.

It’s why so many see his decision to publish and be damned as a bold, liberating move. They may be proved right. Certainly if authorities are spurred into action over the next few days and charges are filed against those on the list who have amassed fortunes through tax evasion or other illegal activities, Vaxevanis’s actions will have been justified and he will be seen as a hero.

However, this is rarely the way things happen in Greece. After the initial flurry of interest in scandals, the media moves on to feast elsewhere, the public loses interest and authorities stand down, resuming their usually lax stance. For this pattern to be broken, the information that is put into the public domain must be so compelling that nobody can hide from their responsibility to follow it up: neither the media, nor the public, nor the authorities whose duty it is to do so anyway.

While a list containing the names of about 2,000 Greeks who held accounts containing 1.5 to 2 billion euros at a Swiss bank is interesting, it is not compelling. Hot Doc admits, as it is legally and morally obliged to, that holding an account in another country than Greece that has an undisclosed amount of money in it is not a crime. To establish that an offense has been committed, more information is needed. What does the account holder do? How much money do they have? Does what they do justify that amount? If not, where could the money have come from? What offenses may have been committed in the process? These are just some of the questions that should have been part of the investigative process.

Anyone can publish a list but few can process, check and expand on the information included in that list in order to take it that step further and truly provide a public service. It requires time, resources and a commitment to ensuring that the story is bigger than anyone involved.

In 2011, the Daily Telegraph in the UK broke one of the country’s biggest political scandals for years when it published the names and details of MPs who had swindled Parliament’s expenses system, and therefore British taxpayers. The newspaper bought the list of names from someone who obtained it illegally, just as the list of Greek depositors at HSBC in Geneva had been. The Daily Telegraph did not publish the information, though. It put together a team of journalists that pored over the details of about 1 million documents to verify their authenticity and their implications. Then it published.

“I was concerned at the very beginning that it was a hoax,” editor Will Lewis told an inquiry in early 2011. “It was my responsibility to bring this into the public domain. It represents one of the most important bits of public service and public interest journalism in the post war period.”

The list published by Vaxevanis appears to contain politicians, journalists, publishers and others with public roles. There was ample opportunity to establish whether there were grounds to believe that any of these individuals had been involved in something untoward. Hot Doc’s attempt to serve the truth by publishing the list may prove damaging to investigative journalism because of the apparent failure to follow up the information it possessed.

If in the coming weeks the magazine’s action is deemed a public service, then it will have truly been vindicated. If, though, its decision to use a scatter gun approach when a more discriminate process was needed means we end up with nothing more than aspersions and suppositions then it will only have achieved is a brief advert break before the normal disservice resumes.

Nick Malkoutzis

8 responses to “News or ad break?

  1. Imho publishing that data violates some persons privacy rights, but indeed it might be a desperate act of heroism and morally justified to do so.

    Those who legally own that money and have paid all their taxes might forgive the journalist due to the very special situation in the country.

  2. I don’t know much about the issue but the act of publishing looks a bit amateurish to me.

    For the reasons stated by Nick but also because there is a long negotiated deal pending (not yet executed) between Swiss authorities and Greek on the exact manner of uncovering and prosecuting such foreign accounts on the grounds of possible tax evasion.

    My own sense is that the “Lagarde list” became a hot item at a time the PASOK vote was needed for the passage of the last batch of the odious austerity measures. Therefore it was a “raw” political move to say to PASOK that we expect your full vote and cooperation in this matter or else.

    As far as the publishing of such list my some obscure media, this hardly looks as a competent and professional move. It’s more like a very prolonged warning to the perpetrators of tax evasion to either come up with a story or better fabricated one quickly. Any name on such list must be particularly dumb not to have taken evasive action after this ineloquent attempt at implying guilt without really levying a charge.

    The publication of such list while the Greek state is attempting to collect fines and perhaps in the process impound foreign and domestic accounts as well as other assets, is criminal IMHO.

  3. You are a journalist and editor. Why can’t Kathimerini itself undertake this research? The last people to entrust this to are the politicians and SDOE.
    Or is, perhaps, Kathimerini not an ‘independent’ newspaper?

    • That is a fair question and one I probably won’t be able to answer satisfactorily. As I mention in the piece, one thing you need to do the job properly is resources. At the moment, given cutbacks, sackings etc, there are few – if any – news organizations in Greece that can conduct proper investigations.
      Clearly, this needs addressing but it also needs the public to support it. When the best-selling newspaper is whichever has the best discount vouchers, it is not conducive to good journalism.
      In terms of Kathimerini specifically, Tassos Teloglou remains one of the few journalists in Greece that is involved in what can be termed investigative journalism and Kathimerini has been at the forefront of exposing scandals such as Siemens and Tsochatzopoulos in the past.
      It is not enough, and I would agree with you that most of the Greek media needs to decide what direction it wants to go in and how much of a defining principle independence will be.
      As for myself, I make no secret of the fact that I am not an investigative journalist and have nothing but admiration for those that do the job properly.

      • The ressources required to investigate such matter are huge and a Greek journal could try to analyze a few names only.

  4. I’m guessing that Hot Doc lacked the resources for the level of investigative journalism you outline, so considered simple publication the next best thing. I hadn’t thought of the risks you point out of this lapsing into irrelevance, but it’s certainly done plenty in the short term to show up the laughable contrast between the inability of the state to react suitably to possession of this list for at least 2 years and the speed with which Vaxevanis was arrested.

  5. Plenty of food for thought there, Nick, but Greece is not the UK, where newspaper proprietors and editors – you cite the case of the Telegraph and the expenses scandal – are prepared to invest in investigative journalism.

    Greece is a country where one newspaper (Ta Nea) can publish the tax details of musical performers and suffer no consequences, while an independent journalist publishes a list of names and occupations and attracts the immediate attention of the legal system.

    In fairness, how long would it have taken Vaxevanis to sift through the list to find the tax dodgers? Who would have paid him to do that? HotDoc sales certainly wouldn’t have compensated him. Would any established newspaper pay him for his work?

    Vaxevanis has achieved many things: he’s hammered the message home that if the Greek authorities were in anyway serious about tacking tax evasion, we might not need to slash the pensions and benefits of the weakest in society in next week’s savage austerity vote. He’s also exposed the slavish nature of much of the Greek press, a consequence of its control by small number of barons. In other countries, the list would have never remained secret for so long, and once it became known that copies were lying around here and there, more journalists than one (Vaxevanis) would have been on the case to get their hands on them.

    Of course, the question is: did the anonymous person who sent Vaxevanis the list send it to others? Were they allowed publish or even investigate, if so? And if the source could only think of Vaxevanis to send it to, isn’t that an indictment of the rest of the press?

    • I can accept that the publication of the list was justified as a (in my opinion illegal) public service compensating for the extreme public disservice on the part of the authorities for two years. I also think it was good to clear the journalist swiftly of the charges for the sake of not creating a martyr.

      I make two points.

      First, the authorities MUST urgently change course of how they are processing the information which they have on hand by now (not only the 2.000 names of the Lagarde-list but, even more importantly, the 50.000+ names who transferred 20-30 BEUR out of the country in the last two years). To continue with a business-as-usual process will not be good enough if the government wants to have a chance to regain credibility on this issue. It wouldn’t be a far-fetched thought, in my opinion, for the government to establish a special task force reporting directly to the Prime Minister and including neutral foreign experts, possibly from the EU Task Force. Such a task force would have to fully inform the public as to what they are doing and by what time they will report on the results. Anyone who wants to ‘come clear’ by paying past-due taxes and any penalties which may apply should be given the opportunity to remain confidential. The names of the others would become public knowledge as due legal process is being applied to them.

      Secondly, I warn of victory celebrations that democracy has returned to Greece because of this. Democracy cannot work without solid and crediible institutions. If institutions fail, all effort should be made to improve them instead of tearing them down because otherwise one loses control over the process and a lot of innocent people are likely to get hurt. I was very disturbed to read Prof. Varoufakis’ stating in his blog that he has seen the complete list with all details (amounts, etc.). Has there perhaps been a mass-mailing of the list?

      I fully understand the thurst on the part of Greeks to ‘see some blood’. That is only natural, given what they have had to witness on the part of authorities over the years and given that they now have to pay for that. Instead of blood, Greeks must be given reassurance that the State of Law, however damaged it has become, will return; that justice will be served. That can and will not happen by only pursuing with a business-as-usual process.

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