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Tuesday, April 05, 2016 

How many journalists does it take to get a story wrong?

The Panama Papers, then.  The biggest leak ever, went up the cry.  A massive team of journalists from around the world, working together on 2.6 terabytes of data, detailing the work of our new friends Mossack Fonseca, based in Panama.  The data goes back decades, with the law firm specialising in the setting up of shell companies for the rich, famous and elite, often based not in Panama itself but in crown dependencies like the British Virgin Islands.  Who then would be the first to be exposed?

PutinOf course.  His name doesn't appear itself, as Vlad isn't that daft, but his cellist pal and two childhood friends do.  Not really telling us anything we didn't already know though, is it?  Nor does it take into account that however much it is Putin has salted away, it will pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions stolen from the Russian taxpayer in the giveaway privatisations of the 90s.  You know, those same oligarchs that have since made London their home, buying up property left and right and fighting battles through the courts.  One name not given as big headlines was Petro Poroshenko, billionaire president of Ukraine, who was setting up an offshore company as the east of the country burned.

Indeed, the coverage as a whole has been stilted and highly fragmented.  To learn of practically any names other than those of the usual 2 minutes hate figures, you need to go to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism's own site.  There you can learn that apart from bag handlers for Assad and figures linked to FIFA, directly named in the files are the Saudi king, the president of the United Arab Emirates, and the former emir and prime minister of Qatar.  The Graun has now got round to featuring the daughters of Azerbaijan's ruler and their property dealings in London, as well as highlighting other potentially shady transactions, but already it feels as if the moment of maximum publicity has passed, possibly wasted.

We've been here before, after all.  The HSBC files from Switzerland were met with calls for inquiries, prosecutions.  The end result? 1 case ended up being pursued.  1.  Nor is the story about David Cameron's father new, even if some of the details are.  Back in 2012 the Graun revealed that Ian Cameron ran a "network" of investment funds based offshore, including Blairmore Holdings, based in Panama and we now learn administered from the Bahamas.  Blairmore was also explicit about the aim being to avoid paying tax  The fund's prospectus from 2006 said: "The Directors intend that the affairs on the Fund should be managed and conducted so that it does not become resident in the United Kingdom for UK taxation purposes".

You can't hold the son responsible for the sins of the father, of course.  Nor can you when the son is extremely careful in how he responds.  When asked by Faisal Islam if he had benefited from the fund in the past, Cameron said only that he didn't currently.  Nor did he expand on the point in a further statement, which did alert us to how Glam Sam Cam does hold shares connected to her father's land.  The subtext is fairly obvious: of course he benefited from the fund in the past.  That was the point.  That said, there is no suggestion anything illegal has taken place.  Mossack Fonseca may well have helped bust sanctions, hide the ill-gotten gains of dictators and had a hand in laundering the money from the Brinks Mat robbery, but plenty of their business is all about ensuring the rich pay as little tax as they can get away with.  Some of these masters of the universe then fund political parties, who in turn are then strangely resistant to doing much about cracking down on tax avoidance.

Oh sure, the government has been talking a good game for a long time, and there were further changes in the budget aimed at implementing the recommendations of the OECD action plan.  None of this is likely to have much effect though when HMRC remains deliberately understaffed, when the British overseas territories at the centre of so much tax avoidance activity are dragging their feet on disclosing the identities of the beneficiary owners of companies registered there, and when the City of London itself has become the equivalent of an offshore tax haven.  At the same time as he claims to be cracking down on tax avoidance, the chancellor continues to reduce corporation tax, due to drop to 17% by the end of the decade.  Osborne is playing a double game: knowing that companies will go on trying to pay as little as they can, his aim is to make Britain the new Ireland, and to hell with the other nations trying to get businesses based there in all but name to pay their fair share.

Will then the Panama Papers make the slightest difference to anything?  Pull the other one.

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