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October 27, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:42am

Pandora Papers: Guardian and BBC journalists reveal their role in world’s biggest journalistic investigation

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK journalists who led the Pandora Papers investigation for the Guardian and BBC have said it shows how “amazingly powerful” journalistic collaboration can be despite the challenges of engaging readers in complex financial reporting.

The Pandora Papers investigation, which went live earlier this month, is thought to have been the biggest collaboration in journalism history with more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries taking part, co-ordinated by the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In the UK, BBC Panorama and the Guardian jointly led the investigation, reporting stories such as the King of Jordan’s £70m spend on a UK and US property empire amassed through offshore firms as his country received substantial financial aid from other governments, and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s £300,000 tax saving when buying a London office from an offshore company.

Representatives in both cases denied they had done anything wrong.

[Read more: How Pandora Papers offshore leak became ‘biggest journalism partnership in history’]

Guardian head of investigations Paul Lewis told Press Gazette: “We’re proud of every single piece, but the investigations we did in partnership with BBC Panorama into major political donors were particularly deeply reported and, I think, hugely important.”

The Guardian was involved from early 2020 when International Consortium of Investigative Journalists director Gerard Ryle visited the paper to provide an overview of the leaked material –some 11.9m confidential offshore investment data files.

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Lewis said: “It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a major investigative project, and an opportunity to scrutinise the offshore industry and hold it to account.”

The Guardian started with two reporters on the project full-time and others giving their time intermittently. By the end of the investigation almost 20 journalists were involved, including many of the Guardian’s foreign correspondents around the world.

The Guardian has worked on a number of similar international investigative collaborations including the Panama Papers in 2016 and Paradise Papers a year later and Lewis said he felt the paper has developed “expertise for complex financial reporting ” and a reputation for working productively with other organisations.

[Read more: Global targeting of journalists with state spyware revealed by international investigation]

Lewis said he had learned a lot from the Pegasus Project looking at hacking software developed by the NSO Group, which was published just over two months before the Pandora Papers.

“It turned out to be an invaluable primer on the mechanics of delivering these big projects,” he said.

“These are huge productions, and the logistics involve contributions from across the Guardian – the reporters are the face of the project, but the team also comprises dozens of designers, picture researchers, lawyers, editor and sub-editors, video and audio producers, all working under intense pressure and to a looming deadline that can’t be shifted. The logistics of running a team that big requires a lot of thought and planning.”

The BBC’s Pandora Papers cohort started as a research team of two – James Oliver, who produced and directed the BBC Panorama films, with journalist Rory Tinman – a year ago before it expanded to four at the start of the year, then six, ending up with a “huge cast list” from across the BBC to ensure the stories went across its various platforms.

‘Real appetite’ from audience

Asked about the biggest challenges of working on the UK investigation Oliver, who worked almost exclusively on the Pandora Papers for a year, told Press Gazette: “At the beginning, it was finding the stories. By the end of the investigation it was keeping across all the stories that were being found.”

The lead Pandora Papers story on the BBC News website got 6.5m page views while the Panorama film looking at political donors, which aired on Monday 4 October, had an audience of more than 2m. Overall Pandora Papers stories reached more than 20m people across the wider BBC.

Oliver said the figures showed a “real appetite” for these stories, despite acknowledging: “Engaging people with complex stories that are based on documents can be very difficult. More so in television than in any other medium, but offshore structures are difficult in any format.”

Similarly the Guardian’s Lewis said it is “absolutely a challenge” to get readers invested in complex financial stories.

“They can be dry, hard to understand and hard to communicate,” he said. “But the onus is really on us to do the hard work needed to make our journalism accessible and engaging. The analytics on our stories actually showed very high reader-retention and engagement levels on our stories.”

Despite this, he said there was an “incredible” global response to the investigation, which sparked inquiries in a dozen countries, inspired legislation in the US Congress and arguably contributed to the Czech prime minister’s election loss just days after the Pandora Papers revelations went live.

Lewis added: “I think it is fair to say the reaction in the UK has been more muted, but I don’t think that’s a surprise given how implicated our country is in the offshore economy,” adding that London is a “nexus for the tax haven world”.

‘It shows how amazingly powerful it can be’

Asked what he was most proud of, the BBC’s Oliver said: “Ultimately I think we’re in the business of reaching as many people as possible with revelatory journalism in the public interest. And I think we did that.”

He noted that collaboration both within the BBC and with external partnerships, particularly with the Guardian, meant “far more” stories could be found and produced than would otherwise have been possible – especially as global knowledge was needed to identify the most significant people in different markets.

Oliver said: “It shows how amazingly powerful it can be and how we’re all learning that working together, not just across borders but also with other teams from notional competitors, is not only effective, but maximises impact.”

Collaborative reporting ‘becoming more sophisticated’

Lewis also praised the collaboration that took place, noting that leads from the BBC, Washington Post, Le Monde among others benefited the Guardian’s reporting – and, he hoped, vice versa.

“Financial investigations of this kind are hugely complex and challenging,” he said.

“This was the biggest leak of offshore data in history, and mining a leak of that size is a massive undertaking. But one of the great things about these kinds of collaborations is that the workload is spread.”

He said the project showed that, for certain types of investigations, collaboration works: “How else could you get 600 journalists working on one project – all focusing on different threads all over the world, but all working in partnership and pulling the same direction?

“This kind of collaborative reporting has been ongoing for several years now so I don’t think we can call it new. But it is evolving, becoming more sophisticated – and increasingly it is delivering stories that have a truly global impact.”

Picture: Oleksandr Siedov/Getty Images

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