Do tax exposés help HMRC?

Do tax exposés help HMRC?

The BBC's Panorama and The Guardian were given the Investigation of the Decade award at the British Journalism Awards for their part in the Panama Papers scoop, however subsequent journalistic efforts have failed to make quite the same impact in exposing tax shenanigans. 

In April 2016 the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists made public the investigation of a huge mass of leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. In the end, the leaked data totalled about 2.6 terabytes. Some 100 partner news organisations around the world were involved in the investigation – including BBC’s Panorama and The Guardian newspaper.

The identity of the leaker/hacker is still not publicly known. However, we know they succeeded in taking everything from basic company registry and beneficial ownership information to the most frank and intimate copy correspondence with clients and other advisers.

Journalists were able to find widespread irregularities such as the backdating of documents – often transparently recorded in correspondence that the parties never thought would find itself in journalistic or law enforcement hands.

In tax terms alone, leaked information shared with the world’s tax authorities has now led to the known recovery of more than £1bn worldwide in evaded or avoided taxes, including about £200m in the UK.

At least where shedding a light on UK tax wrongdoing is concerned, subsequent journalistic attempts have proven less fruitful.

In 2017 the ICIJ broke the so-called Paradise Papers, focusing on a leak from reputable international law firm Appleby and its then trust business. Although journalists were able to titillate their readers and viewers with details of wealthy clients’ previously private offshore financial arrangements, the exposé ultimately fell flat because 6m leaked documents did little other than show a bona fide law firm going about its legitimate business. 

Despite BBC and Guardian journalists intent on finding wrongdoing, they simply did not find it. Sir Lewis Hamilton, for instance, was shown to have used clever planning to prevent a £3.5m VAT charge on his private jet – nothing illegal in doing that in the way he was professionally advised.

Appleby defended its position robustly, took legal action against The Guardian and BBC for their use of stolen confidential records in the claimed public interest and forced The Guardian and BBC into a private settlement.

Of course, the UK public interest, where tax is concerned, is closely guarded by HM Revenue & Customs. Vigilante journalists are but an informal adjunct.

Information gathering 

HMRC is an eager consumer of leaked offshore financial information, but it goes about its work forensically and privately. HMRC’s core remit – to which everything else is secondary – is to collect taxes, not to broadcast or publish. 

Once HMRC has an inkling of where to start digging, it has a wide array of statutory information-gathering powers and an army of skilled investigators of its own. However, HMRC has finite resources and must allocate them carefully. Many parliamentarians and journalists have vented about the success of HMRC in bringing scores of successful criminal and civil investigations from the Panama Papers compared to its apparent failure to do the same with the Paradise Papers.  However, perhaps blinkered by a general prejudice towards offshore financial centres, they have failed to appreciate the difference between offshore done legitimately and offshore done wrongly.