Introducing Finance Uncovered
Three years ago, Tax Justice Network director, John Christensen asked me if I would run a course to equip journalists with skills and tools to investigate tax abuse, money laundering and corruption.
On the spot, I said “yes”.
I'd been a financial journalist for over 20 years but I’d never received any specific financial training. Bit by bit, I taught myself rudimentary accountancy, data and investigative skills.
In ten years on the business desks at the Observer and Guardian, I landed some punches. But I look back and think I wish I took a basic accountancy course far earlier than I did.
In the emerging and developing world where many journalists risk their lives pursuing important stories, practical financial investigative training is in even shorter supply.
It is why we created our four-day course.
Luminaries such as Nicholas Shaxson and James Henry outline the size, scale and history of the offshore world. This provides the context for accountancy training, document sourcing, data and personal security and other key skills needed to bring home technically difficult and sensitive “follow the money” stories.
We made bursaries available to developing world journalists. Fees were charged to Western media and campaign groups.
We asked some of the world’s finest financial investigators and journalists to pass on their tricks and insights. They responded with great enthusiasm.
A discreet call out for applications gave us enough candidates to fill the room five times over. Most were high quality although due diligence showed some did not check out.
In March 2013, with the help of the Centre of Investigative Journalism, 19 participants attended our first course.
They included Khadija Sharife, a brilliant and brave journalist from South Africa who edits the impressive African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and Will Fitzgibbon, who led the ICIJ’s recent Fatal Extraction project.
They were joined by journalists from Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, the DRC, Germany, Italy, India, Tunisia, Uganda and the UK.
The feedback after our pilot was tremendously encouraging. But it was obvious to me that knowledge gained could evaporate once reporters returned home to their countries.
It was all very well putting on a focused training programme if you did not have an “after care service” to help participants get their stories out there.
It was also clear that we had the potential to create an international network of skilled up journalists, researchers, campaigners and academics.
We needed to fundraise and recruit an Investigation Director. In mid-2013, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust kindly obliged with a three-year grant. Lately, we also received cash from Oxfam Novib.
This has enabled us to put on a further four courses. In total, we have so far trained 122 reporters, researchers and academics from 54 countries.
And I believe Finance Uncovered has lived up to its core mission which is to increase the quantity and quality of illicit finance related news items in the media – particularly in the developing and emerging world.
We can point to well over 60 stories and films that we either helped generate or would not have happened without our training.
Among the most notable:
Goldfinger, a multi-award winning film by Susan Comrie who then worked for the Carte Blanche news programme in South Africa. The film exposed how an illegal gold smuggling ring was also at the centre of a vast tax fraud involving a school’s headteacher.
In Uganda, Jeff Mbanga used the knowledge he gleaned from our course to write a tremendous story about how electricity prices to consumers are partly predicated on the amount of taxes paid by power companies. Jeff discovered that Uganda’s “number one” electricity firm was not paying the taxes it said it would and yet prices to consumers did not drop.
We received a leak from the Nigerian Central Bank giving the inside story over an alleged multi-billion dollar accounting scandal at the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation which we passed on to Emmanuel Mayah in Nigeria who delivered an outstanding piece which you can see here.
Last year, Finance Uncovered’s own director of investigations, George Turner nailed a story, which ran in five countries, exposing how African’s biggest private equity fund made vast profits, took out over $2bn in dividends but paid exceptionally small amounts of corporation tax. George also simultaneously showed how the fund had received millions of euros from the EU’s bank, seemingly in contravention of its own policy not to route loans to companies in tax havens. As a result of the investigation, the European Parliament said it would look into the matter.
One of Africa’s top investigative journalists told us that many of Africa's recent illicit financial investigations have come from journalists that have participated in our programme. It has been said we have been behind “investigations that pioneered new ways of seeing stories".
But last Friday, was a landmark for us at Finance Uncovered – the culmination of a two-year, cross-border collaboration with journalists in our network who were based in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.
Together, we revealed how MTN, Africa's biggest mobile phone provider, shifted billions of rand from its subsidiaries in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and the Ivory Coast to a shell company in the small island tax haven of Mauritius.
A report in Nigeria will follow shortly.
The cross-border team accessed company accounts from African corporate registries.
We trawled stock market statements and found a bond prospectus that revealed complicated corporate structures which were put in place under the chairmanship of Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President of South Africa.
We also discovered documents that showed how tax authorities in several African countries have challenged MTN – a company which accounts for one in four subscribers across the entire African continent – over the huge management fees it charged profitable revenue generating subsidiaries.
For us at Finance Uncovered, this cross-border collaboration was the vindication of our model and the shape of things to come.
Until now, we have been a TJN project funded by specific grants. But earlier this year, we incorporated. Our future is an independent journalist and training organisation.
At the end of May next year, our current project funding ends. It will also see us conclude our link with TJN which over the years has done amazing work mainstreaming what was once seen as a marginal issue.
We currently survive on £80,000 per year. For that, we deliver two training courses, offer 25 full bursaries to developing world journalists and employ the equivalent of one staff member four days a week.
We hope to receive grant and project funding from foundations as we think we have a proven track record of impactful work and a conveyor belt of ideas.
We like to think our projects will attract your support too. I may be wrong but I have a feeling you want to see journalists around the world working together, following the money and shining a light into the darker corners of finance.