Money and Politics

The Impact of Investigations

Paul Radu talks about setting goals as an investigator and measuring the impact of your work.

Every investigation project needs a clearly defined goal. With limited resources, journalists must ask themselves some important questions. What outcomes can realistically be achieved? How do the benefits weigh against the risks? In this chapter Paul talks about setting goals as an investigator and measuring the impact of your work.

What outcomes are you hoping for from your investigations?

The best outcome would be if members of the public in many countries acted on what they saw in our work. We would be very happy if the public in the United Kingdom, for example, realised because of our investigations that the UK system for creating companies is harmful to lots of other countries. We think that one of the valuable things about global cross-border investigative reporting is that it can raise people’s awareness about things that happen far from their home countries, but that are affected by what they do in their own country, or by the political system, or by the people in power in their home country. It would be of great value if we managed to raise awareness of the impact that local actions have on regional events and global structures.

How important is it for you to have influence on policy?

I believe that policy is very important insofar as it is implemented and enforced. There are lots of good policies on transparency in business, in politics, and so on. Unfortunately, these policies are not always any use, because they’re not always implemented. Some of the people who are supposed to be implementing and enforcing the policies are precisely the people who take advantage of the absence of implementation. One could become cynical and say that our work and the work of policymakers alike is futile. However, I think it is necessary work, because we do see results over time, things move forward and eventually reach a point where these policies are actually used for good. Now, though, when you look at global treaties and agreements, you realise that they just do not work. Often policies are designed with a particular country or region in mind, and wrongdoing today is cross-border, it is global. Policy-makers have a hard time grasping this, and sometimes they see that a model works in one country and want to replicate the same model across borders in every country. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

However, it would be possible to to create minimum requirements for commerce that would change the world. For example, if you were to get rid of the secrecy in company information. I am not just talking about the situation in off-shore havens and islands somewhere in the Caribbean, but about secrecy that companies take advantage of right now in the UK, in Switzerland and in the USA, where companies can be established without the beneficial owner being known (that is, the person who ultimately profits from the company’s activities). Even if just this one thing could be done across the world, making it possible to pinpoint who is the beneficial owner of a company – this would be a radical change. Politicians would not be able to hide behind proxies and receive bribes. Criminals would not be able to hide. Rich people who want to conceal their wealth, their fortunes, would not be able to hide. This would change the world very rapidly. Of course, this would hurt lots of powerful interests, even those of countries, but again, it is not actually countries as much as it is individuals taking advantage of this system for their own gain. This is why changing the status quo is hard. You have all these policies, and more policies, and more policies, but they don’t change things much, because some people get around them and others don’t enact or enforce the changes that would really make a difference.

You’ve said that it’s important to inspire people to engage and offer their skills and information. Which skills and what information?

I mean investigative and research skills specifically. For example, say there’s a company operating in your local area: you need the skills that will enable you to find out what this company really is and how it operates, or who is behind it. There are always people behind the facade of a corporation. It is very important to find out who is really responsible, who’s actually in charge and who benefits; that comes down to investigative skills and to being able to collaborate with people in other countries, because often the parent companies of the local corporations come from a different country, so you need to collaborate with people in that other country to get more information. What’s more, these days most people have access to a camera or a smartphone that can record pictures and audio, and these evidence-gathering skills are also important. It is necessary and crucial for people to develop and use these skills, and for them to want to document what is going on around them.

People also need to be able to find as many uses as possible for the information they uncover. It’s essential to document wrongdoing at the local level, but it’s also very important to think across borders, to ask, “Who else in the world would be interested in this? Would this only be of interest to activists who want to know what’s going on in the world, or are there other people who could take action based on this information?” That is very, very important.

It’s a question of attitude. For instance, if you identify a Canadian corporation that has done something wrong here in Romania, you should ask yourself, “Where else is this corporation active? It’s active in Indonesia and Malawi as well: how can I contact people there? How can I get in touch with people there who can take advantage of my research here?” Because if there’s been misbehaviour in one place, it’s safe to assume that the same type of unethical behaviour could be going on elsewhere. This is always worth checking. There may not be problems elsewhere, but it is always worthwhile to pass the information to people or groups abroad that may be affected by the same issues.

Say, for example, that the corporation under investigation is listed on the US Stock Exchange. The USA has a Foreign Bribery law; American corporations are not allowed to pay bribes. Although a bribe may have been paid outside of the USA, they are able to investigate it and to prosecute the company and the people involved in this. It is always good to think about these stories in a global context, because the same problem can be tackled in many ways.

How would you create collaborations to deal with groups that have more power than you do, such as organised criminals?

For our cross-border investigative network to function well, the most important thing is to facilitate collaboration between grass-roots organisations – local people who know what they are doing and are aware of what is going on at first hand. If you have cooperation at a grass-roots level and you also have people who have a regional vision, this helps a lot. In some regions of the world, this already happens. In Eastern Europe, we are still at the beginning of creating these networks, but we are cooperating pretty well. But when it comes to cooperating with activists in Africa, or with investigative reporters and citizens interested in research in Africa, that is much harder; not only because of the language barrier, but because of the lack of skills and resources those activists are confronted to. The people who are interested in what’s going on there – because a lot of what is going on in Africa has to do with China, the USA and Eastern Europe – are not really able to tap into that knowledge and to spread it to the public because they do not have access to information and they do not know how to access these networks. This is something that we are working on to create more cooperation with local investigative reporters and activists.

Some of the best recent investigations across borders have been undertaken by activists rather than by investigative reporters – activists who believe strongly in what they’re doing. Their investigations provide evidence to support their work, which is really important. The ideal would be to have an open global intelligence network, if you will: people would gather information, they’d share it in an open way across borders and they’d create value for various publics out of it. Let’s say a company operating in Sierra Leone destroys a village. That is very important to the people who live in that village and the region. But the same information can also be important to one of the shareholders of the company, which may be listed on a stock exchange in London, Tokyo, Toronto, or Perth.

Maybe it will make a difference to the shareholder when they find out how the company behaves in Sierra Leone; shareholders are not always exclusively interested in money. Lots of people want to earn money in an ethical way. And the more they find out, the better equipped they are to put pressure on the company. There is a real need for this intelligence, this information to flow freely across borders. A socially-driven global intelligence service, beyond the reach of governments, would be great for activists and for people interested in doing good.

First published on July 10, 2015

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