City course helped journalists tackle ‘biggest banking leak in history’
A Guardian journalist who was behind the recent HSBC tax avoidance story says the skills he learned at City helped him to unravel the complex data involved in the scoop.
During a presentation to current City students, James Ball revealed the methods he used to investigate the activities of the bank’s Swiss arm.
He was joined by fellow Guardian journalist and alumnus David Pegg, who helped explain the six-month process that led to the story’s publication in February.
Mr Ball, Special Projects Editor for the newspaper, said the key investigative skills he learned at City, such as searching through public records and databases, were “incredibly important”.
“It helped a good deal having got the foundation of it at City,” he said. “It’s actually the best first leg-up you get.”
The journalists were part of a dedicated team of four Guardian reporters who researched the handling of accounts at an arm of HSBC.
After an in-depth analysis of thousands of leaked banking details, the newspaper concluded HSBC’s Swiss private bank had helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal assets.
The data consisted of documents made available via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, relating to 30,000 bank accounts and covering the period 2005 to 2007.
It helped a good deal having got the foundation of it at City - James Ball
As reported by the Guardian, HSBC admitted it was “accountable for past compliance and control failures” and said its Swiss arm had not been fully integrated into the business after its purchase in 1999, resulting in “significantly lower” standards of compliance.
The City alumni revealed the vast depth of their project, which involved meticulously analysing the accounts of 100,000 individuals on large spreadsheets, personal files and other documents.
However, despite the task’s scale, Mr Ball explained that when he pitched the idea to his editors he had “never had a faster ‘yes’”.
“It was very obvious, even from that stage, it was a huge amount of work and there were a huge amount of legal difficulties,” said the journalist, who completed a post-graduate diploma in Journalism at City in 2008.
Mr Pegg said a large part of his work involved identifying the account holders and contacting them to offer the chance of explaining their arrangements with the bank.
As a result, the journalists received more than 100 letters from lawyers representing individuals involved.
Mr Ball explained that while this process was “spectacularly difficult”, it was necessary, as the stories would require “the mother of all legal clearances” before they could be published.
David Pegg, who completed City’s Investigative Journalism Masters in 2011, said: “After several months of research, I spent about six weeks doing nothing but trying to find contact details for the various people that we wanted to contact, which was a challenge in its own right.”
The articles arising from the investigation, which the Guardian says resulted from the “biggest banking leak in history”, prompted worldwide coverage of the story.
To read the journalists’ work, visit the newspaper’s website.