Book review: The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich & Powerful Hide Their Money

Authors: Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier
Publisher: OneWorld Press (2016)
Paperback: 384pp
ISBN: 978-1786070470
Price: £12.99

For many, as it did with me, this book will beckon you from the bookseller’s shelf; an explosive title befitting an incredible process involving upwards of 400 journalists in 80 countries culminating with simultaneous coverage breaking worldwide at 20:00hrs GMT on Sunday 3 April 2016 (note to impatient lawyers: that happens at p 327).

Park the moral indignation about theft of personal information and enjoy the thriller ride involving Central America, offshore jurisdictions, despots, dictators, celebrities, sports stars, politicians, Swiss bankers and the son of a Rottenführer in the Waffen-SS that became an apparently bad CIA informant.

Which of us has not had material so good for cross-examination that it seems to burn a hole in the trial bundle and leave you worrying that some calamity may prevent its use? Imagine processing 11.5m documents, packed with a myriad of stories spread across the world, using highly specialist search software that requires such powerful computing hardware that you have to keep going back to your boss for more money. (Cue the understanding editor at respected Munich-based newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, where it all started with an anonymous email: ‘Interested in data? I’m happy to share.’ I’ll say: 2.6 terabytes of the stuff.)

The sheer volume of material is, in some senses, the undoing of this book by the two German journalists at the heart of this ground-breaking collaborative effort. They wrote in dawn shifts and sometimes it shows; parts of this amazing history are slightly repetitive. ‘Project Prometheus’ covers factually quite complex wealth structuring narrative – rather the point of the book – and its attempts to make the concepts accessible to the (dare I say) non-lawyer are not always completely accurate. The eventual name of ‘Panama Papers’ for the largest known data theft of all time is taken from the ‘Pentagon Papers’, the publication of US Ministry of Defence secret papers in 1971.

The book would benefit from appendices, improvements to the glossary of terms, an organisational chart on Mossack Fonseca (as well as a list of the 500+ banks involved), plus a map of the globe to help with the diverse geography of the narrative. The authors can get bogged down in politics at times (viz Chapter 30, ‘The Cold Heart of the Offshore World’). These are small gripes, though, and largely reflect the lack of time the authors had to make this story topical and gripping as it still is. ●

Reviewer Tim Prudhoe, Kobre & Kim

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