With leaked data sets getting increasingly larger, cooperation between news outlets is becoming a standard operating procedure.
News outlets that once were chasing the exclusive are now willing - or maybe compelled - to join forces with competitors and to even keep a lid on juicy stories for months or longer - all in the spirit of collaboration.
One organisation at the forefront of this trend is WikiLeaks.
When its founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange decided to partner with a few news outlets on the Afghan War Logs, he created a reporting model that would go on to grow larger, with more and more partners, with subsequent leaks.
Al Jazeera's Richard Gizbert went to the Ecuadorian embassy in London to sit down with Assange and discuss the Panama Papers, multi-newsroom collaborations and how to handle leaked documents.
Al Jazeera: What are the very first steps that lead to these kinds of investigations - the sources, the whistleblowers. Who are they and what are their motives?
Julian Assange: Assuming they were an insider, or they were an individual computer hacker coming from the outside, this is a technical person or this person had help from a technical person.
I think it's likely that this represents the radicalisation of the technical class, that's something that we have seen for example with Snowden.
So these, usually young men, who are technically educated know how to extract material. But of course they have to have the idea and the idea is given to them by successful examples. And now there have been a range of successful examples.
Al Jazeera: It's also to do with hardware though isn't it? Because back in 2010, most journalists and most news organisations wouldn't have had a clue about encryption. Most Guardian journalists he was dealing with, he had to school. Now many news outlets are providing these boxes, these - for lack of a better term - safe havens for data that five years ago, only organisations like yours and a few others did. That's a big change as well isn't it?
Julian Assange: Well I don't believe that Suddeutsche Zeitung got their material that way. However, their journalists have been educated in the technology. But it's no surprise that it was a German newspaper because Germany is the centre of technical education of journalists and is also the centre of the political radicalisation of the technical class, both of those two things combined.
Al Jazeera: The head of the ICIJ - coincidentally is another Australian - Gerard Ryle. I think it's fair to say you're not on great terms. He said that the ICIJ has no plans to release the full data set. He said: "We're not WikiLeaks. We're trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly."
Julian Assange: Yeah that's a concern. We're very pleased about the work that SZ (Suddeutsche Zeitung) - did in the beginning in developing that source. We think that's really good work. The work of the source of course is the most impressive and then pulling together that collaboration is also impressive work.
Saying that you're going to censor and not release a lot of the material, in fact what must be 99 percent of the material, that's a big problem. It's fine to have some kind of staggered release because you want to balance the supply and demand curve. But what I want to hear is that there is a path, a transparent path to publishing the vast majority of that data set because that's what's interesting from a legal perspective, from a historical perspective.
One of the fundamental missed lessons of the WikiLeaks experience is about how to deal with scale. OK, one part of dealing with scale is stitch together a big international collaboration, get more bodies, more eyeballs on the material. The other way to deal with scale is that scale is inherent in the material. When you've got millions of documents, you need to make millions of documents available, citable so it's not just a few hundred journalists, it's all the lawyers in the world, it's all the police in the world.
Al Jazeera: As someone who pretty much wrote the book on multi-media outlet collaborations - you knew that this stuff was coming. When you saw the first wave, the first two or three days of reporting, what stood out for you and what did you not see that you thought you would in the reporting?
Julian Assange: Well we've been covering offshore sector for a long time since 2007. In fact, WikiLeaks has used the offshore sector for protection from banking blockades so we even had to research it for our own purposes. But in terms of the initial angling of the story, that can be a bit strange. There was clearly a conscious effort to go with the Putin bashing, North Korea bashing, sanctions bashing etc. I didn't think that was necessary for that story, it's not as if the blowback from the US DoJ or the US State Department needs that kind of political protection but for some reason some papers, like The Guardian, thought that that was necessary.
Al Jazeera: Have we seen any other examples in parochial reporting - media outlets from various countries doing what The Guardian appears to have done which is point at a distant target while not paying as much attention - proportionally speaking - to domestic targets much closer to home.
Julian Assange: Sure that was done in Sweden with SVT, the Swedish state TV, beating up on Iceland. Iceland is a small Scandinavian neighbour, sort of viewed as quite provincial and fun to beat up on. But at the Swedish trusts were not really examined.
Al Jazeera: Am I the only one who is surprised that more than 100 news organisations can get involved with a story like this and somehow in an industry that is famous for rumour-mongering and incurable gossips they manage to keep the lid on the whole story until it came out?
Julian Assange: I think it is interesting, we knew ... we know other people and other news organisations who knew but didn't say anything I think because there was no story that was being worked on. No one knows of the law firm concerned, it doesn't have name recognition. Then, the individual details are quite technical. You can't tweet this story, you can't spill the beans with just a small comment so I think there just was not the market to do it. It could also be that so many news organisations were involved so they have incentives to not report.
Al Jazeera: The other thing that strikes me about this is that we're sitting in an embassy in London that you are not free to leave. And that a lot of politicians primarily in the United States but also elsewhere, when the leaks came out in 2010, they turned you into the embodiment of the problem, your organisation as the standard bearer for something that they wanted to stop. And in a way it kind of reminds me of the Napster story when they found out that Napster wasn't their problem - the technology was their problem - that there is no music industry per se. I'm wondering if there is a parallel or whether you draw any satisfaction when you see stories like this come out whether you feel like now would be a good time to point out that you weren’t necessarily their problem and that you can't lock that up in an embassy in west London.
Julian Assange: WikiLeaks set an example and the example was the threat. And the example was the threat because the technology, over time, became more available to other people who could then follow the example. But examples really are threats, once they're copied you're not just dealing with one threat any more, you're dealing with normalisation of a particular practice. But we're actually only halfway there. So our technology has been adopted for some of the inputs, a little bit for organisational-to-organisational communication. But unfortunately not much yet on the publishing side. That's still a big problem.
Looking forward as to how I think the Panama Papers will go, it's going to be very hard to get reform without a bulk publishing effort. There's just not the mass, if there are 300 journalists involved that is just not enough mass to deal with the reliance that the establishment of the UK, United States and in fact most countries have in the offshore sector.
Now what you have in practice at the moment is basically a two-tiered tax system where the middle class and the working poor pay income tax and the wealthy essentially don't pay anything. That's a question about the structure of society and that big picture angle is not being engaged with in the journalism that it's done. It is all oh North Korea, oh Russia or sanctions breaking or maybe someone dodging inheritance tax a little bit. But there is a big picture here as well.
Al Jazeera: The stories that we can put a face on. They like to do the stories that they can put a face on ...
Julian Assange: You know, scandals and stories you can put a face on. It can be good for marketing reasons, but what are you marketing in the end? What WikiLeaks does, and what I believe should've been done with this story, is that the scandals are there to market the archive because it's archive that has the scale that can deal with the problem.
Watch The Listening Post special episode on the coverage of the Panama Papers here.
Source: Al Jazeera