31 March, Friday: With less than three days to the global release of the Panama Papers investigation, the WhatsApp group of the Indian Express team was abuzz with updates quite early in the morning. once the flurry of messages ebbed momentarily and it was nearly time for the morning edit meet, the chief editor posted a cryptic note: “today Chris Gayle will decide what kind of a play Prometheus gets...”
Nobody needed the reminder. since the day the global release date was fixed in December 2015, they knew that the fate of the Panama Papers, in terms of the display in the newspaper, hinged on the outcome of the T20 World Cup. If India played the final on 3 April at the Eden Gardens, the 4 April edition of every Indian newspaper would have to be all about how the match was won or lost. By all means, it was a tricky proposition.
Cricket is religion in India and no one in the paper’s Panama team was immune to its charm. A World Cup at home presented a rare opportunity to root for the team. Yet, they were jittery because the fluidity of the situation put the planning for the display and pagination of the Panama Papers stories on hold. the quantum of interest generated by a long series often depends on its first impression. Much of its impact usually hinges on how strongly the series is launched.
With months of hard work at stake, the team was already simulating all three possible scenarios – India winning, India losing and not playing the final – to weigh corresponding plans for Day one’s Panama package.
In a way, the editor’s post made the countdown official. In about seven hours, India was to take on West Indies at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium in the second semi-final to earn the right to face England in Kolkata on Sunday. While both teams had won three of their four group games, India was carrying the momentum of having thrashed the mighty Aussies earlier in the week.
Not surprisingly, many felt the hosts had a distinct edge over their semi-final rival who had suffered a shock defeat at the hands of rookies Afghanistan in their last group game. Yet, it was impossible to undermine the magic of the calypso brand of cricket in the presence of a mercurial Chris Gayle, whose two appearances with the bat in the group matches had fetched, rather befittingly, 100 not out and 4. In such a make-or-mar scenario, the best option was to keep fingers firmly crossed.
As it turned out, Gayle lasted six balls to score five runs before Jasprit Bumrah castled him with a trademark toe-crusher. It also turned out that India did not need the mighty Jamaican to fire to plot their own defeat. In walked Lendl Simmons donning maroon on his IPL home ground. First match out of a back injury, he cantered to an unbeaten 82 in just 51 balls while India kept finding ways to not get him out.
Simmons was caught three times – twice the bowlers had overstepped and the third time the fielder stepped on the boundary rope. With Andre Russell joining the sixer feast, it was over with three balls to spare. An anti-climactic end to India’s tournament, the disappointment was summed up in the caption to the paper’s front-page photo the next morning: March ends on 31st. For a few conflicted souls in the newsroom, though, there was relief in the heartbreak on All Fools’ Day.
Already, by 30 March, short profiles of forty-three individuals named in the Mossack Fonseca records were ready with the Indian Express project desk. Each of these individuals had been contacted by the reporter concerned and responses in some cases were received as late as 2 April.
As far as the major stories were concerned, a sufficient buffer was maintained to fine-tune each piece to a standalone investigation. A month to D-Day, the newspaper’s Panama Papers desk headed by Rakesh Sinha had received drafts of the major stories in two pen drives. By mid-March, a dedicated secure mail account was in use for updates, queries and playbacks. two weeks to D-Day, the reporters were itching to reach out to those who figured in the investigation.
It was, however, decided to approach the “big names” only after Holi, the festival of colours, on 24 March, and that nobody should get less than a week to respond. then the chief editor stepped in to underline that a week meant “seven full working days” so that nobody could complain that they were rushed.
At this stage, Ritu made sure that the chief editor cleared the questions meant for certain “very important” individuals in advance. Holi was also the deadline for the three reporters to finish writing all their stories so that they could devote all their time and energy to chasing their “subjects” for responses.
Requests for comments in a standardised format prepared in consultation with the ICIJ were sent out on 25 March. The individuals named in the stories were asked if the details pertaining to each of them on the Mossack Fonseca records were correct, and if they had informed the regulator about those offshore activities.
The wait for responses though continued till the very last days. only a day before the release, the communications agency representing the Adanis conveyed that “the client” had decided not to respond formally.
India’s largest realty firm, the DLF group, promoted by KP Singh, sent a lengthy mail explaining the family’s deposits abroad under the Liberalised Remittance scheme. It took some convincing of the company’s CEO Rajeev Talwar, an ex-bureaucrat, to get the promoters to respond to the queries, which they finally did.
De La Rue, the world’s largest commercial banknote printer, did not have an India agent. so Vaidy called up the company’s London headquarters, only to learn that all media queries had to be directed to Brunswick, a financial communications firm. After many calls, and a daily chase, the firm finally said the queries related to a period some years ago, and that it would get back in due course.
As the chief editor would not run a story without a version from the affected party in the interest of accuracy and fairness, Vaidy got a written mail from Brunswick that a comment would take some time, and incorporated it in the De La Rue report. He was anxious since UK’s Guardian too was closely following the story.
But the story did not make it to print on Day one in India or the UK. eventually, some days later, De La Rue did respond, stating the individuals mentioned had long since left the business.
While Videocon’s Venugopal Dhoot responded to queries on the offshore company floated to bid for an IPL franchise on 30 March, partners Karisma and Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan maintained silence. A senior editor tried to reach Khan through his mother but her effort elicited no response.
The wait to hear from Aishwarya Rai and the Mehrasons family also continued till the very last days. In the case of Mehrasons, finally, it was Deepak Mehra who sent his response with a runner, admitting to his family being connected with two of the seven companies and trusts named in the Panama Papers. And with no reply coming directly from Rai, the paper decided to run with the written email response that had been sent by her media adviser.
During the final week, the three reporters rushed through a series of meetings to clarify ambiguities or denials and made sure their subjects were given a fair opportunity to respond.
However, the fate of the story on Amitabh Bachchan remained uncertain till the very last hours since neither the Bollywood star nor his office responded to repeated requests for comments.
With less than six hours to the deadline for sending the edition to press, Jay was asked to reach out to Abhishek Bachchan with the set of queries meant for the senior Bachchan. The son did not respond either.
Once the uncertainty over the play the Panama Papers would get on 4 April ended, the team got into planning the Day One package to its last detail. At one level, they faced a problem of plenty in deciding how much to roll out on the first day. of the several hundreds of Indians named in the leaked data, the paper’s finite resources allowed deep scanning of only a few dozens. As the ICIJ was to make public the global list of all the names on the Mossack Fonseca records in the weeks to come, a call had to be taken on the Indian names that would not figure in the paper’s Panama Papers stories.
Since it was physically impractical to print the entire list, one idea was to focus on the ones potentially most susceptible to having committed tax violations depending on the nature of the documents on their companies in the data.
Vaidy suggested that the paper put out the entire list of Indians who held shares in offshore entities managed by Mossack Fonseca and leave out the list of office bearers such as directors and so on. After much deliberation in a succession of “half-hour” meetings, however, the paper decided against it for two reasons.
After exercising due diligence for publishing one set of names, it would not be fair to name another set without giving them an opportunity to present their version of the story. Also, publishing a long bare- bones list without any details would have tested both the physical limitation of the paper and the appetite of the reader.
Opulence of data, though, was not the only challenge to contend with. Nor did the team always match up to the gravity of the issues it confronted. While desperately hunting for visuals to accompany the story on the mysterious Panamanian firm at the heart of the investigation, the lack of viable options made a couple of editors fancy using a sketch of Miss Fonseca, the office secretary in legendary Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda’s workplace comic strip. Doubtless, seconded a third editor, she was the only Fonseca Indians had related to till then!
Excerpted with permission from The Panama Papers: The Untold India Story of the Trailblazing Global Offshore Investigation, Ritu Sarin, Jay Mazoomdaar and P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Vintage.