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CONVERSATION | 'What do the Panama Papers say?' Jane Martinson interviews Mar Cabra

Spanish journalist Mar Cabra (@cabralens), former Head of Data Unit at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), was at the heart of the biggest news story of the twenty-first century: the Panama Papers. This impressive international investigative journalism collaboration, which involved over 100 media partners, shook governments and corporations around the world.

In conversation with Jane Martinson (@janemartinson), Guardian columnist and former Media Editor, Mar Cabra took to the Trust in Journalism Conference 2019 stage to talk about how the Panama Papers came to life, the challenges of working on public interest journalism in a connected world, building trust in collaborative journalism projects, the 'radical sharing' methodology, and the often disregarded mental health pressures on journalists.

What was it like dealing with so many journalists across different time zones?

The first challenge for us was to deal with so much data. The Panama Papers are still the largest leak in journalism history. Back in the spring of 2015, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, contacted ICIJ (which is a non-profit based out of Washington D.C.) and told us: 'Hey, we have 11.5 million files and we want to collaborate with you to dig through them'.

If we had printed [the 11.5 million files] it would have been like trucks that would have had to go from Germany to the US if we were a few years ago. The first big challenge was technical – how do we mine this, how do we know if there is any public interest?

ICIJ has been doing worldwide collaborations for almost 20 years. We set up a team around the world; ICIJ had been doing big collaborations in the previous years (such as Swissleaks, also called the 'HSBC files', done by the Guardian and the BBC in the UK). Setting up a team was easier because we had already proven to journalists the win-win situation of collaborations.

Investigative journalism is not very collaborative normally; you can collaborate with people that you don’t compete with. We would set up a global team with people that didn’t compete in different countries. In the UK, that would be the Guardian and the BBC, in Spain it would be a TV channel and another print media outlet or online media outlet. That’s how we ended up with more than 100 media partners around the world.

How did you set up the teams? How did it actually happen?

A lot of people look at the Panama Papers like the success. But the reason why the Panama Papers was a success is because we had small pilot projects or smaller investigations before that led us to create these bonds of trust so that when we got the Panama Papers it made it easier for people to get involved.

The Guardian set up a team of five people that worked out of a room that nobody knew about for a year so. For an editor to say yes to something as constant as that, there has to be some trust established before.

How did you keep all this information a secret while coordinating all these competing egos?

Technology was key to do that; and people. My team created a social media platform, like a virtual newsroom, where we would all go once a week or once a day. You would have posts of people that had found stories that would be front page stories for their newspaper. All these 11.5 million documents were accessible to everybody in the team. We called it 'radical sharing methodology'.

When you see that day after day, after day, over a year and you see that colleagues working in other parts of the world are finding stories that are relevant to their country and that you're able to collaborate – who doesn’t like that?

"I think that trust was built thanks to the technology. Also, in these big collaborations, the role of project managers is key."

In the years since, despite the Pulitzer prize, despite all the different ramifications of the findings, 82 different countries launching investigations... there are still some people who ask ‘what did it really achieve?’. What do you say to that?

I think that that’s on us journalists, because sometimes we cover a big investigation which makes big noise for one month, two months but then we don’t cover the follow ups. ICIJ has been trying to do a good job on this: Will Fitzgibbon has been doing a great job in following up but the reality is that the Panama Papers is a story from 3 years ago. We don’t hear the impact, but the impact has been great and ICIJ has a lot of information on this.

First off: the money that was recovered. The Panama Papers were about the world of offshore finance and the impact it has in our economies and the inequality that we have in our world. That means that a lot of people, normally rich and powerful individuals and organisations, use tax havens in many cases to not pay taxes.

Second: taxes were recovered. In the UK, earlier this year almost 253 million dollars have been recovered. Globally, we accounted for 1.28 billion dollars recovered in taxes and unpaid taxes and there are investigations in almost every country that we published in.

"We published in more than 100 countries and we accounted for investigations in more than 150 countries."

Third: the Panamanian law firm where the data came from, Mossac Fonseca, closed after 40 years and the owners are being investigated by the FBI.

I think the most important impact is the long-term impact on laws, especially at the EU level. I think that we don’t look at tax havens in the same way anymore.

What was the impact on you and your colleagues?

I’m super proud of what we did and I think the Panama Papers was an investigation that opened the eyes of many other investigative colleagues and big media companies that didn’t want to collaborate before.

At a personal level, I think it was a very stressful time and we did all the efforts we had to, working across time zones. But I don’t think I evaluated correctly the personal impact it would have.

"I didn't evaluated correctly the personal impact [the Panama Papers] would have."

Panama Papers was published in April 2016, and at the end of 2017, I quit my job. I was burnt out. No other leak was as interesting, nothing else seemed interesting to me. I would be picking up the Pulitzer prize with my colleagues in New York and then going back home and being unhappy. That equation didn’t work out for me.

I haven’t done active journalism since then. I don’t know if I will ever come back to active journalism. It’s like when you have a lot of chocolate cake that you really like and then you eat too much and you are sick all night and you think, I don’t think I’m going to eat more chocolate cake in my life.

In my case it was very difficult to put limits and to see that things can wait. This is not just my personal case. Out of the five people in senior leadership team of the Panama Papers, four [including Mar] had to take at least a year off. I think we should be thinking about how can we have projects like these without burning people out afterwards.

Are media companies, small and large, doing anything to address burnout?

Mental health and wellbeing is still somehow taboo in journalism. Because most of us here are in journalism because we are passionate about it, we tend to put journalism ahead of everything, ahead of many times our partners, our families and ourselves. I didn’t know how to put limits. I now put limits on my ‘passion’. So even though I’m passionate, my first passion is me, regardless of how historic something I’m working on is.

I think we should talk more about establishing different guidelines and processes in certain media publications that respect these limits too.

Find out more about the Panama Papers investigation at:


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