Undercover media collaboration behind exposure of international financial fraud

For almost a year and in deepest secrecy, Danish and German journalists have worked together to reveal the very core of a tax-refund scam amounting to at least 55 billion euros, reported in breaking news last Thursday by DR, Yle and SVT along with 14 fellow international media outlets. What this clearly shows is that international cooperation is the way forward for investigative journalism, says one of the journalists behind the DR documentary “The Men Who Robbed Europe” (Mændene, der plyndrede Europa).

By Ib Keld Jensen

In September 2017, DR journalist Niels Fastrup happened across an article in Die Zeit, the highly regarded German weekly newspaper. It revealed a case of fraud against the German tax authorities, which shared several similarities with a remarkable scam affecting Denmark. The deception involved a number of U.S. pension funds, and the so-called 401(k) plans also featured on both occasions. As this seemed too much of a coincidence, Niels Fastrup contacted the article’s writers, who turned out to be journalists at German public TV station NDR.

The fraud against Danish tax payers was only a snippet of a much bigger European heist. Photo: Scanpix.

“Speaking to them completely blew my mind. We talked for an hour and realised that both our teams had spent years investigating the same people, the same network and the same scam,” says Niels Fastrup.

Along with his colleague Thomas Svaneborg, Niels Fastrup then arranged to meet with the NDR journalists at the DR headquarters in Copenhagen. This meeting turned out to be the start of an extensive, highly classified collaboration between journalists across Europe.

“The fraud against Danish tax payers, although it involved a huge sum of 1.7 billion euros, was only a snippet of a much bigger European heist,” says Niels Fastrup.

He explains that tax authorities in a number of European countries may have been deprived of sums totalling at least 55 billion euros.

DR journalist Niels Fastrup. Photo: DR.

25 journalists on the case

Part of this international cooperation took place through Correctiv, an independent community for investigative journalism. This organisation has been pivotal in coordinating around 25 journalists, working for 17 different media outlets on the same case, at the same time, and sharing their research among themselves. The journalists had taken a “musketeer’s oath”, agreeing to break their story at the same time and keep their cards close to their chest while benefiting from each other’s research.

“Our collaboration has been incredibly efficient. We have gained access to sources and information that we would never have been able to reach on our own,” says Niels Fastrup, offering as one example a background interview with a Deutsche Bank source in London. Besides, Niels Fastrup and Thomas Svaneborg were able to directly question a secret insider source about the Danish aspects of the case.

One of the major challenges has been to keep track of the great number of documents along the way.

“We have been using an encrypted database, which has huge benefits with regard to sharing research,” Niels Fastrup explains, demonstrating on his smartphone how he is able to access debates and encrypted files, shared in various fora by the journalists involved.

He believes that investigative journalism in future will transcend the national boundaries.

“It is clearly evident that international cooperation is the way forward for investigative journalism, and I reckon that we’ll all have to learn how to conduct ourselves in cross-border collaborations. All the big agendas such as climate change, right-wing populism, migrant flows, terror, financial scandals and abuse of social media are exactly the kind of issues that transcend the national boundaries,” says Niels Fastrup.

Yle producer Marko Hietikko. Photo: Yle.

The logic of investigative journalism makes a U-turn

Among the media which became part of this collaboration along the way is Yle, the Finnish broadcaster and Nordvision partner, as producer Marko Hietikko from Yle’s investigative team was invited to take part in a Nordvision meeting.

“Our work is based on our willingness to collaborate, and since the financial system exists across all national boundaries, all national states are affected by cases such as this,” says Marko Hietikko.

He explains one of the issues that Yle find particularly interesting: seeing how time and time again, large banks continue to receive relatively large fines, which leaves the impression that they are systematically breaking the law and do not intend to learn from experience.

“Collaboration is the only way forward for us staff with the smaller media providers in the Nordic region, because it gives us combined resources that no media providers will have on their own. At the same time, it ensures that our story has a wider publication. It’s impossible to kill it, put a spin on it or remain silent in order to reduce its impact. In that way, by having greater collaborations, we also have more journalistic gravitas than ever before.”

He believes that we are heading for a 180 degree turn away from the logic of traditional journalism, which is based on the myth of the lone journalist hero, working on his own and hanging on to his scoop.

“In today’s media landscape, this kind of logic doesn’t work, and it belongs in the past. We as individuals can never have the same impact that we are able to produce together. But this also requires that we trust each other, and that everyone follows the rules of the game as agreed.”

According to Marko Hietikko, there is an ongoing process towards more international collaboration in investigative journalism – a process that points towards a professionalised publication plan and joint development of ideas as part of what he calls “genuine collaboration”.

“Today, collaboration in Nordvision often follows a pattern where one side presents their idea and invites others to take part. But this rarely translates into a genuine partnership, because the instigator may be two months ahead of the game compared to their new partners,” says Marko Hietikko. He emphasises that while there is nothing wrong with this format, the time is ripe for more and more genuine collaboration, which he also sees as beneficial in view of resources.


Agreement with German broadcaster was made as a joint Nordvision deal

Taking a similar view is head of DR Samfundsliv (current affairs), Ole Hjortdal, who has been in charge of negotiating rights agreements with NDR.

“It is incredibly exciting that we are seeing more and more cross-border collaborations. The stories are crying out for this, and it also makes a lot of sense, because the newsrooms are constantly having their funding squeezed. In actual fact, this is the concept at the root of Nordvision that we are unfolding on a larger scale,” says Ole Hjortdal.

For this specific collaboration and from the very start, DR secured the Nordic rights in their negotiations with NDR. This was to ensure that the other Nordvision broadcasters would also benefit from the final agreement with the special conditions that apply to Nordic public service TV. And such considerations should also be part of negotiating future collaborations with partners south of the region. After all, the Nordic region is a small and less important area for a national German broadcaster such as NDR.

“We have untapped resources in investigative journalism, and I believe that our work from now on should focus more on systematic efforts to identify topics with cross-border perspectives,” says Ole Hjortdal at DR.