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Clarity and murkiness from the the Panama Papers whistleblower

Graphic: ICIJ

I’ve written about law firm Mossack Fonseca’s wimpy response to the Panama Papers leaks. But what about the anonymous whistleblower who leaked them, “John Doe”? His followup contains direct, clear, definitive statements, which are convincing, and vague, murky generalizations, which aren’t. There are lessons here for everyone who writes in business.

Below are excerpts and commentary. (While I use the pronoun “he,” the actual gender of the leaker remains unknown.)

John Doe focuses his response on income inequality

His title and opener sound like the start of a sophomore college paper, remarkably weak for a person at the center of such a firestorm.

The Revolution Will Be Digitized

Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It affects all of us, the world over. The debate over its sudden acceleration has raged for years, with politicians, academics and activists alike helpless to stop its steady growth despite countless speeches, statistical analyses, a few meagre protests, and the occasional documentary. Still, questions remain: why? And why now?

The Panama Papers provide a compelling answer to these questions: massive, pervasive corruption.

The whistleblower makes clear accusations

He’s at his best with descriptions of criminal behavior, despite the occasional cliche and passive voice lapse (shown in bold).

Mossack Fonseca used its influence to write and bend laws worldwide to favour the interests of criminals over a period of decades.

Shell companies are often associated with the crime of tax evasion, but the Panama Papers show beyond a shadow of a doubt that although shell companies are not illegal by definition, they are used to carry out a wide array of serious crimes that go beyond evading taxes.

[T]he law firm, its founders, and employees actually did knowingly violate myriad laws worldwide, repeatedly . . .

Mossack personally perjured himself before a federal court in Nevada, and we also know that his information technology staff attempted to cover up the underlying lies.

First-person statements clarify John Doe’s situation

This essay is not about “John Doe.” But when necessary, he clarifies his role and motivations in the first person.

I decided to expose Mossack Fonseca because I thought its founders, employees and clients should have to answer for their roles in these crimes, only some of which have come to light thus far.

I do not work for any government or intelligence agency, directly or as a contractor, and I never have. My viewpoint is entirely my own, as was my decision to share the documents . . . 

His experience informs his policy suggestions

Doe suggests ways to cure the corruption that the Panama Papers reveal. His suggestions are persuasive, given his obvious familiarity with the problem.

Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack would have us believe that their firm’s shell companies, sometimes called “special purpose vehicles,” are just like cars. But used car salesmen don’t write laws. And the only “special purpose” of the vehicles they produced was too often fraud, on a grand scale.

Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution

I call on the European Commission, the British Parliament, the United States Congress, and all nations to take swift action not only to protect whistleblowers, but to put an end to the global abuse of corporate registers. In the European Union, every member state’s corporate register should be freely accessible, with detailed data plainly available on ultimate beneficial owners.

[T]he United States can clearly no longer trust its fifty states to make sound decisions about their own corporate data. It is long past time for Congress to step in and force transparency by setting standards for disclosure and public access.

Doe’s statement descends into innuendo and generalization

As John Doe turns from the specific to the general, his suggestions become more filled with bullshit — innuendo, unsupported generalizations, and weasel words. I’ve highlighted some examples in bold, with my commentary in brackets following.

Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand has been curiously quiet about his country’s role in enabling the financial fraud Mecca that is the Cook Islands. In Britain, the Tories have been shameless about concealing their own practices involving offshore companies, while Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the United States Treasury, just announced her resignation to work instead for HSBC, one of the most notorious banks on the planet (not coincidentally headquartered in London). [This is innuendo, a series of accusations far less credible than the specifics that John Doe leaked.]

Banks, financial regulators and tax authorities have failed. Decisions have been made that have spared the wealthy while focusing instead on reining in middle- and low-income citizens. [Passive voice and generalizations.]

Judges have too often acquiesced to the arguments of the rich, whose lawyers—and not just Mossack Fonseca—are well trained in honouring the letter of the law, while simultaneously doing everything in their power to desecrate its spirit. [Weasel words, lacking in specifics.]

Democratic governance depends upon responsible individuals throughout the entire system who understand and uphold the law, not who understand and exploit it. On average, lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place, far beyond the meek proposals already on the table. [“On average, lawyers are deeply corrupt” is a generalization that no one could test and that lacks any factual support. “It is imperative” is equivalent to “something must be done” in that it says nothing about who needs to do what.]

The ending, like the beginning, is lame

Judge for yourself — it’s the sophomore paper again.

Yet we live in a time of inexpensive, limitless digital storage and fast internet connections that transcend national boundaries. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots: from start to finish, inception to global media distribution, the next revolution will be digitized.

Or perhaps it has already begun.

Why everyone must become a bold writer

You may think it’s unfair of me to critique a source whose role was to leak information, not write about it. But the role that this person has taken on requires him, like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, to become the face of a worldwide problem. And that requires clear written communication.

Each of us may, at some point in our lives, need to make a case as important as this. That’s why each of us must learn to write without bullshit.

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