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A more hi-tech regional Press would reassure whistleblowers


Exposé: Mossack Fonseca

Exposé: Mossack Fonseca

Exposé: Mossack Fonseca

Anyone who believes journalism is dead should look at the Panama Papers. Likewise, anyone who believes the mainstream media is toast should do the same.

The secret of the exposé is the weight and gravitas that the partnered newspapers and broadcasters brought to the leak. When these organisations make accusations, the world sits up and notices.

But, also, it is about the resources required to handle, sift and analyse the 11.5 million documents that made up the leak. The Panama Papers are probably the biggest leak to the media so far. It is probably as big as all other leaks combined - a 2.6 terabyte dataset from an anonymous source packed full of confidential papers from law firm Mossack Fonseca regarding the management of global offshore companies.

The cost of reporting on this matter is considerable. Each organisation created secure rooms staffed by five or six journalists with near military-grade cyber security to prevent leaks and hacks.

Additionally, world-class software, including highly precise ocular character recognition and complex databases, was needed to scan, input and make sense of such a mountain of data.

So far the overwhelming bulk of these investigations have been carried out by major news organisations such as The Guardian, BBC, Daily Telegraph, New York Times, etc.

But where does this leave smaller newspapers? The Belfast Telegraph has some form here, co-operating with WikiLeaks and the Irish Independent in the second stage of the so-called Cablegate affair in 2011 (disclosure: I was part of the Telegraph's investigating team).

Data leak investigations are never going to be part of the regional newspaper business model - they cost too much, are too infrequent and circulation gains tend to be temporary. But they are great for the paper's brand image and should form part of the mix of reporting.

However, before this happens papers need to develop an investigatory capacity in this area.

First, of course, they need to develop a framework for secure leaks; an untraceable, encrypted upload facility. They also need methods of communicating with sources, because telephones are out. The Tor network, PGP and Telegraph, the encrypted app, are good (free) places to start.

Potential sources need confidence that regional newspapers can protect them from damning data trails, but such outlets cannot currently provide this comfort.

Let's look at a couple of imaginary case histories. Say, for example, someone wanted to upload a dataset containing details of where a Northern Ireland political party gets its funding, and that that funding showed inappropriate payments.

Global news brands will not really be interested in this content, but it would be of intense interest regionally. Do we have the secure routes to deal with it?

Another possibility plucked from the air - a large organisation, for example a bank, a Government institution or a historical inquiries unit, releases all of its files. Tens of thousands of documents would need analysed. Does the regional Press have the capacity to tackle this?

Bloggers and news aggregation websites could not handle the resources, expertise and potential legal exposure of such an investigation. But leading regional newspapers could.

They must, however, develop the technology and means to do so. And that includes ways to reassure sources they cannot be traced.

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