Follow The Money

Paul Radu talks about how financial evidence helps journalists expose organised crime, and how digital activists and journalists are pioneering new follow-the-money techniques.

Financial evidence helps journalists expose organised crime. Money is the global language that connects illegal enterprises everywhere, and investigators who understand this language can find the root of crime and corruption. In this chapter we learn how digital activists and journalists are pioneering new follow-the-money techniques.  

You track down organised criminal groups by “following the money”. Why is this your main investigative strategy? Can you tell us more about it?

Ideology is very rarely the motivation for organised crime or high-level corruption. It is almost always driven by money, money transformed into power: political power and so on. It almost always starts from the desire for money. What’s more, money is a common language. You can investigate company structures across borders and the structures will be the same all the way from Romania to New Zealand, from the US to the UK – everywhere. So there is a common language and structure, and business is global now, too. When you investigate businesses you are able to get an overall picture of these people’s activities. This common language helps us a lot. These people come together because of trade, and money changes hands. This gives us the opportunity to map what’s going on around them in general because, unfortunately, everything revolves around money.

You also teach journalists and activists how to follow the money. Why is this important to you?

I teach people follow-the-money techniques: journalists, activists, sometimes even law enforcement agencies. I teach them how cross-border organised crime operates and how we can track it down. I teach them because I want them to use these skills. I want more exposure of wrongdoing. I do not want it to be just about the twelve or thirteen journalists at the RISE Project, where we have limited capacity. We want more people to do it, which is why we don’t just teach, we also put out on investigative reporting, on follow-the-money techniques. Our handbooks contain clear hands-on examples, so that users can take advantage of them; we don’t just present academic knowledge, this is “real stuff”. We also organise tutorials on how to use all of these databases. We even accompany our published stories with other stories about how we created them, because we believe the public should try to replicate our methods and find new stories in our data.

This is something that extends the reach of investigative reporting: we hand over our tools. Sometimes, colleagues of mine say, “...but no, no, no, we should be very careful with these tools, because if the public gets hold of them, everybody is going to do investigative reporting”. It would be great if everybody did investigative reporting! I am always telling them, “There are too many important stories that we cannot tell, so if other people can tell them, that’s always good. It’s not even robbing us of our work, because there is so much to do out there that we’ll never run out of work.” What’s interesting is that the moment you share your skills, the moment you are transparent about your process, the people that are using those skills keep coming back to you, because they want you to vouch for their work, they want you to cooperate with them. This creates more networking, so being open actually creates more opportunities for you than just keeping hold of your tools and not telling anyone how they can get hold of companies’ records, create a database or what have you.

Many people contact you to tell you new stories or new facts because they’ve seen something that you’ve published. How do you decide whether to follow these leads?

We are always open to people who want to give us information. Sometimes people get in touch with us through our Facebook page or through the contact sections on the Rise Project website. We always listen to people – sometimes they can’t express themselves very well, can’t explain the story very well, but there might still be something there. And of course, some people express themselves very well, but what they tell you is of no value. Sometimes you have to waste time. You cannot avoid wasting some time if you want actually to follow the money.

What we also have to assess is the self-interest of the people who give us information. It is rare for people simply to be Good Samaritans who want to share some information. We assess what their interest is and whether it is in the public interest to publish what they’ve told us, and of course we investigate to match their information against other sources, to make sure that it is accurate. We do not just take what they give us at face value. There is actually quite a bit of information that we know is valid, but we don’t use, because we cannot find other sources to confirm it.

Tell me more about the importance of verifying information, and how you go about it.

Verifying information is very tricky and we always check all of the facts and information in our stories, because we know that even in the digital realm, information can be incorrect. We have come across mistakes in documents from an official source, from a government website: the person that uploaded the information made mistakes. This can lead you on completely the wrong path. We always try to confirm any information from as many sources as possible and we never publish information that is not verified. We check all our facts, so when we make an affirmation such as, “This guy was convicted for this crime in this year”, we include documentation of that claim. When we make an affirmation, we say, “This affirmation is based on these documents and this interview”.

We always have an official source and, of course, we also have (if possible) to verify our information with the people involved, but in most cases, we check it ourselves. Sometimes the people we’re investigating don’t want to talk to us, so we give them time to think about it. We don’t just call today and say, “Look, tomorrow we are going to publish this article on you, so you have to give us the answers by tomorrow.” We give them at least two weeks, and if we cannot approach them, if they do not want to talk to us on the phone, we send them emails. We contact them on LinkedIn or on Facebook or wherever we can find their contact details. We try hard to confirm everything.

The ability to verify data as well as forensic facts is a very important skill for investigative reporters. Can you elaborate on that? Do you train people to use these skills?

Data journalism has indeed been very important to us for the past few years, and its importance is growing. You cannot do thorough investigative reporting without these skills: data scraping, data analysis, and so on. We organise training sessions where we bring our people from various countries together with visual artists and hackers. We don’t necessarily want every journalist to turn into a hacker or a visual artist. That’s impossible. But we want to build bridges between investigative reporters or researchers and hackers and visual artists. This way the hackers and the visual artists acquire investigative skills, and the journalists acquire some of their creative skills; this cooperation creates a new type of journalism. It is not about a reporter turning into a hacker – it is about the reporter cooperating with a hacker, an activist and an artist. It is all about cooperation in the end. It is not about changing who you are, it is about enriching who you are through collaborating with others.

First published on July 10, 2015