Entrepreneur and surveyor of public attitudes towards wealth, Dr Rainer Zitelmann, takes aim at the latest "leak" of masses of data from firms catering to high net worth individuals. He argues that the affair shows a casual disregard for legitimate privacy.
As reported a few days ago, details of 330 politicians’ financial affairs have been revealed by the Washington DC-based group of journalists who in recent years have shone a light on Panama and other international financial centres. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has issued what it calls the Pandora papers, calling itself the “world’s largest-ever journalistic collaboration,” involving more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries. The group report comes in the wake of its “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers” revelations of recent years. It will ignite fresh controversy over what is the right boundary between legitimate client privacy and secrecy.
A regular contributor to these pages, Dr Rainer Zitelmann, a Germany-based investor, entrepreneur and student of trends in wealth and attitudes towards it (see examples here and here), examines the story and what wealth managers and their clients should make of this latest leak. The editors are pleased to share these insights and invite readers’ replies. The usual editorial disclaimers apply. Email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
According to Greek mythology, Pandora’s box contained all the evils known to mankind, such as sickness and death. When Pandora opened the box, she released them into the world. The investigative journalists who, as a follow-up to the Panama and Paradise Papers, are now releasing the Pandora Papers into the world feel like Pandora.
The Pandora Papers contain information about the owners of shell companies. Media coverage refers to a “leak” or “data leak.” In fact, “data leak” is a euphemistic phrase for data stolen through illegal hacking. It is the equivalent of someone stealing money from you or accepting stolen money and then claiming the bills escaped from a “leak” in your wallet.
The articles spread names of people who currently own or previously (and in some cases many years ago) owned “shell companies.” Whether these shell companies have ever been used to hide illegal or disreputable activities has not been established. The German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose journalists coordinated this and similar revelations, says: “Doing business in tax havens is not against the law, and many of the deals and investments found in the leak appear to be perfectly legal. Where it becomes illegal, for example, is when taxable income reported in tax havens is not declared to domestic tax authorities. That, in turn, is almost impossible for the media to check.”
However, these three sentences are lost in a flood of names that are in some way linked by association with dirty money. Above all, the media outlets reporting on the Pandora Papers live from the insinuation that the any mention of shell companies is automatically reprehensible. By making these insinuations, the journalists denounce prominent figures from the fields of politics, sports and business and place them under general suspicion.
It can be assumed that shell companies are frequently used by money launderers, drug traffickers and corrupt politicians from all over the world. And with many of the names now being mentioned the assumption is that the accusations are all too justified.
What is striking, however, is that in many articles, past and present, “the rich” or “the superrich” are all placed under general suspicion and put in the dock. Obviously, such stories are less about clarifying the facts and more about fuelling a media campaign.
Each time, the journalists prepare their campaigns with the kind of professionalism normally associated with a big brand’s international marketing campaign: partner newspapers all over the world are sought and they all work together on their stories with almost military precision. Back when the Panama Papers were generating headlines, the Süddeutsche Zeitung had a full-time illustrator working exclusively on the project and even released a “making-of” film to document every step of the research and reporting.
None of the journalists give much thought to the legality of how the data were acquired and whether it is okay to publish the data given data protection and personal rights. They operate according to the principle that the ends justify the means. And since many of their readers already believe that a majority of the rich and superrich are tax evaders anyway, the “revelations” merely confirm such preconceived opinions.
However, I am not aware of a single scientific study that has ever established that a majority of rich people evade taxes or even do so more frequently than everyone else. Naturally, the scale of the “unpaid taxes” mentioned in connection with the rich is far greater than is the case of someone who employs their cleaner on a cash-in-hand basis.
Nonetheless, it is quite possible that a large number of the people whose names are now appearing on front pages around the world have not only never done anything illegal, but also nothing that could even be regarded as morally reprehensible. Of course, there is also much to suggest that many of the people whose names appear in the Pandora Papers are now rightly being exposed for questionable acts. What is missing is any attempt to differentiate between the two.
The author, Rainer Zitelmann, has dealt extensively with media coverage of the Panama and Paradise Papers in his book, The Rich in Public Opinion - https://the-power-of-capitalism.com/