The Paradise Papers is tabloid journalism—and that’s a good thing

Since publication November 5, the “Paradise Papers” leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with almost 400 journalists and 95 media organizations across 6 continents through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have helped shed new light on the offshore activities and tax shenanigans of the high and mighty, ranging from large corporations over parts of the British Royal Family, high profile celebrities, elite universities and to major politicians including members of Donald Trump’s cabinet and prominent Brexit campaigners.

It is a powerful reminder of how large-scale leaks, new technologies, and a more collaborative mindset than what has historically characterized an almost pathologically competitive profession can empower investigative journalism, especially when it comes to complex, international stories that no one journalist or news organization can handle on their own.

And yet, for some, the leaks have seemed like a bit of a let-down. The Economist drily noted that “the Paradise Papers are less exciting than the Panama ones”. You can almost imagine the editorial meeting: “Rich people and big companies pursue tax efficiency, and government let them. What else is new?” It is a serious point. This is certainly an impressive example of how journalism can, in Walter Lippmann’s words, “make the invisible world visible” to citizens in the modern world. But while the breadth, depth, and detail is incredible, how many are really surprised by the revelations? And do we really care about exactly how so-and-so funnelled money from A to B via C, D and E to minimize taxes?

That is why it is important that the Paradise Papers coverage draws so heavily not only on high-minded and often frankly boring “just the facts, ma’am” accountability reporting, but also on the best elements of tabloid journalism.

The focus on celebrities, on sensational details, on morality over legality, and the deep suspicion of the elite is part and parcel of tabloids all over the world—and of how the Paradise Papers have been reported. Such coverage is not simply about transmitting information about the details of this that or the other tax dodge, but about whether the behaviour documented is morally acceptable. Here, as James W. Carey has put it “what is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.” The “contending forces” in the Panama Papers are self-interested elites, the retainer class that serves them, governments that often talk tough about tax issues, but appear incapable of (or unwilling to) actually address the issues at hand—and journalism that tries to hold the powerful to account for their actions.

The information in the Paradise Papers remind us, in great details, that the issues are still with us. This is the journalism part, and very good journalism too. But it is the portrayal that hammers home the point. Because it draws on tabloid tropes, the coverage encourages us not only to contemplate information about tax avoidance by the rich and the powerful. It also pulls us in as participants and invite us to judge it. Like many sensationalist stories about the high and mighty, the point is not whether what has been done is a crime, but what we think of it and whether it is right. As then President Barack Obama said in 2016 in response to the similar affairs documented in the previously leaked Panama Papers, “The problem is that a lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.”

The Paradise Papers reminds us that “this stuff” is still widespread, is still happening on a large scale, and is still legal. And like good, gripping, moralizing tabloid journalism, is invites us, collectively, to judge those involved, even if we can’t convict them.

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