In anticipation of the sound and the fury that will no doubt define international news coverage of a data breach at Appleby law firm, here are a few of our thoughts on the matter of “leaks,” “hacks” and offshore exposés under the guise of investigative journalism.
On Tuesday, Appleby – a Bermuda-headquartered law firm that has offices in multiple jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands – confirmed that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (the coalition behind the “Panama Papers”) had informed them they are in possession of private documents that may have been obtained via a cybersecurity breach. (In layman’s terms, stolen and passed around.)
It seems inevitable that the journalists will publish “something” based on the sensitive documents, and it seems safe to assume that “something” will adhere to the template of the ICIJ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers exposé. For Appleby, Bermuda and other offshore jurisdictions (including quite possibly Cayman), that translates to the prospect of public criticism and severe reputational damage – regardless of whether it’s warranted, reasonable or fair.
Already, officials from the Isle of Man are attempting to head off the ICIJ by preemptively announcing that journalists have been asking them about the tax structures of commercial and corporate jets and aircraft used by wealthy individuals, as we report in today’s Compass. If it is necessary, it might be wise for Cayman to consider playing “offense” as part of its defensive strategy.
But that’s not what this editorial is primarily about. We are compelled to point out that the Panama Papers, and now the potential coverage of the Appleby leak, are examples of an unacceptable violation of individuals’ fundamental right to privacy – which includes their financial affairs.
Yes, on a case-by-case basis, it may be justifiable to publish “leaked” (and verified) information when it is squarely in the public interest – government corruption, real threats to public safety, blatantly illegal wrongdoing, etc. Readers will find such stories in the Compass on a regular basis.
However, in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of a different sort of “investigative journalism” that largely includes the public dumping of private information, oftentimes in the absence of analysis, context or verification. It is journalism most foul.
Call it the WikiLeaks Syndrome: Unnamed hackers/leakers/robbers with political motivations obtain large amounts of personal, confidential or proprietary information, which media houses then pass on to their audiences based on their “news judgments,” too often contaminated by subjectivity, bias and political prejudice.
We would hope, at the very least, that the journalists who have Appleby’s information will interrogate the provider of the records as vigorously as they might the people mentioned in the records. Sample questions: Why are you sharing this? How did you obtain it? Who helped you? Is this an accurate and complete set of records?
The Compass will not diminish or palter with this principle: Appleby and its clients have a fundamental right – not to be abridged by governments, regulators or journalists – to keep legal correspondence privileged, private and confidential.