Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Panama Papers: Vladimir Putin sells

Journalism has become “corrupted by the demands of government propaganda” — and Putin sells.

The Panama Papers have revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hiding billions of dollars in offshore accounts held by his rich and famous friends. Yes, indeed. Pick up any British newspaper this week and you’ll see for yourself. It’s all there in black and white — except that it’s not.

The thing about accusing someone of hiding billions of dollars and being corrupt to the core is that you should probably have a little bit of evidence to back up the claim. If you do not, in fact, have that evidence, you probably shouldn’t splash the person’s face across your front page and attempt to make it seem like a foregone conclusion by employing the use of fancy-looking diagrams.

That is exactly what The Guardian’s Luke Harding did on Monday in his front-page story, deceitfully headlined: “The secret $2bn trail that leads all the way to Putin”. Unfortunately for Harding however, the trail only leads “all the way” to Putin in his very overactive imagination, because as depressing as it must be for him to admit — and he did grudgingly admit it — in the 11.5 million documents leaked from the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, Putin’s name was not mentioned once.

What a letdown.

Western governments and journalists have been searching in vain for Putin’s rumoured billions for years, and one of the best theories they’ve come up with to date is that Sergey Roldugin, a wealthy Russian musician and a close friend of Putin’s has “apparently” accumulated a fortune, is in control of assets worth $100 million and “possibly more” than that. Alongside Harding’s story about Rodulgin and Putin was a video “explainer” called ‘How to hide a billion dollars’  with a picture of Putin as the still. Honestly, is there any crowd more lacking in basic respect for their profession (or general integrity) than the British press?

Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, The Guardian was not alone in immediately running with the ‘Putin link’ when the Panama leaks became public. The consensus throughout much of the British and American media was that Putin was the big story, despite his absence from the documents.

To point out that this is deceptive media framing apparently means one is “defending” Putin, as I was reliably informed on Twitter earlier in the week. But here’s the thing: This is not about Putin. Highlighting disingenuous and misleading coverage is not a “defense” of anyone. It is not a claim to know anything whatsoever about Putin’s finances or whether they run into the millions or billions. Instead, it is a commentary on the shameless conduct of Western journalists who purport to take their profession and the sanctity of facts ever so seriously. It is an expression of disgust at these so-called journalists whose fundamental task is not to dutifully perform witch hunts for their respective governments, but to actually inform the public on that which they deserve to be informed. It is simply to say that something which is not proven the fact, should not be presented to the public in such a way that implies it is fact.

One would think that this clarification does not need to be spelled out. Unfortunately, it does.

Is it suspicious that many of Putin’s friends have enriched themselves through apparently dubious methods? Of course. Should it be of interest to report? Of course. Does it make a good story? Absolutely.

Dereliction of duty

Anyone familiar with journalism and how a basic news story is put together will be familiar with the concept of the inverted pyramid. According to this method, the most important piece of information is presented at the top of the story, with secondary information coming later. Something like the inverted pyramid usually applies to the flurry of stories that follow huge leaks of this kind. Adhering to their duty to place the public good above all else, journalists are supposed to highlight the story which is most relevant to the public which they serve.

It should, therefore, follow that British journalists would focus the bulk of their attention on the British aspect of the Panama revelations. For instance, the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron’s father is — unlike Putin — mentioned in the documents. The PM’s late father ran an offshore fund and avoided paying UK tax on his assets for thirty years. That’s a whopper of a story, and yet somehow The Guardian didn’t see fit to find space for a picture of Cameron on the front page.

Nor did they, or the bulk of Western media, see fit to focus much on the fact that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — the West’s puppet in Kiev — was also named in the documents as having set up an offshore company through Mossack Fonseca. Washington-friendly Poroshenko was elected promising to clean up corruption in his country. His Prime Minister was hand-picked by the US State Department.

You couldn’t make it up.

But instead of drawing any serious amount of attention to these inarguably major stories, they were mentioned almost in passing as though they were of lesser importance, rather than the opposite. Putin is a corrupt dictator! — (oh and Cameron’s Dad hid some money and the Ukrainian President might have done something maybe not so great). Anyway, back to Putin!

The vilification that goes hand in hand with any Western news story about Putin and corruption is simply unmatched. The coverage Cameron has received over an actual indisputable link to the Panama Papers has paled in comparison. The British media has also not vilified him personally for it. He has been allowed to maintain his innocence. The idea that maybe he’s really telling the truth, maybe he really doesn’t benefit from any offshore funds; these are all things the public are led to believe are still possibilities. The same goes for Poroshenko. But not so with Putin. Without a shred of concrete evidence proving he possesses these secret billions, the media has locked him up and thrown away the key.

The trail that leads all the way to Washington

Given that The Guardian and others are into following money trails, they seem to have missed one very relevant connection. The OCCRP, which is behind the Panama Papers project, is funded by the US government through USAID, the government aid agency which has described itself as working "in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States”.

It is no surprise then that the focus of attention was shifted away from any revelations about leaders who are in Washington’s good graces and directed onto leaders and figures who are not. Wikileaks tweeted yesterday that while the OCCRP can do good work, to have the American government directly fund the attack on Putin, “seriously undermines its integrity”.

Today’s “journalism” — if it is about tarnishing the reputation of one of Washington’s enemies, at least — does not require a single fragment of tangible evidence for it to be printed as a front-page splash. A set of loosely connected pieces of information and random speculation from someone’s sworn enemies can be presented as a closed case to the reading public. It has nothing whatsoever to do with “defending” the target to find this hugely disturbing.

Journalism has become “corrupted by the demands of government propaganda” — and Putin sells.

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