“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.