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“It’s not the topic, it’s how you tell it”

Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/PA Images

In 2015, an anonymous source offered German journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier millions of internal documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. One year later their investigation into the biggest leak in history culminated in the publication of the Panama Papers, which exposed how the global elite protects its money, often to the detriment of taxpayers.

In our new issue, Obermayer and Obermaier tell us about the impact of the Panama Papers several months after their publication – from Obama’s executive action to close tax loopholes to the Icelandic PM’s resignation.

We asked Bastian Obermayer what the year-long project revealed about the state of investigative journalism. Here’s what he told us.

Your newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung funded your investigation for a year. Did they feel they got a return on their investment?
In investigative journalism we don’t think in those terms. If you do, you have to stop it. You never know when you start investigating a topic if it’s worth it. Sometimes you hit a brick wall and that’s it, but it’s still important to try. 

But in this case we definitely got a big return on the investment. The name Süddeutsche Zeitung wasn’t really known before in the world. Now you just have to say Panama Papers and everybody knows what you’re talking about. More people are interested in buying ads in the newspaper because we have a better reputation and many people subscribed after the Panama Papers were published. But we would have done it anyway.

Do you worry that this type of project might not get properly funded in the future because there’s currently so little money available for in-depth journalism?
In the last year nearly all the newspapers in Germany set up new investigative units. It’s like a trend – it’s very cool to have an investigative unit. I think people have realised that if your newspaper is only printing the same stuff that everybody does, your decline is not going to be stopped. We all have a decline here; the only difference is how deep you fall. If you want to win some new readers and stop the others from leaving your newspaper, you have to give them something special.

We’ve got a lot of letters and emails from our readers saying that they are so proud that they helped finance this sort of thing. That shows it is making a difference and you don’t have to spend millions on it – we’re a team of four guys, you know.

Are people sufficiently engaging with news on financial scandals?
You could say that people never used to engage in economic scandals, but that has changed. I never read the economics section myself ten years ago – as soon as they started throwing numbers around I fell asleep. But when you explain what this kind of economic scandal means to people, then they start to care. The tax evasion issue may be boring, but the money that’s lacking because people are evading taxes is real. This is why we don’t have new hospitals and new universities; it’s why we have bad roads. If you look at Africa, an entire continent is being looted by people who don’t pay taxes to the poorest countries in the world. How can you not be interested in that? It’s not the topic, it’s how you tell it. It is only the one percent that is winning and we have to keep presenting this argument in an interesting way.

For more from Obermayer and Obermaier, check out DG issue #23 available in the DG shop. Or take out an annual subscription with promotion code ‘SOCIAL20’ and we’ll send you the issue for free. 

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