Emma Watson: Illustrating the Difference Between in the Public Interest and what Interests the Public

There has been a great deal of media focus in the build-up to Thursday’s anti-corruption summit but, while the amount of news has been substantial, it has also served to show the risks of introducing a public register.

On Monday there was a public letter from economists urging world leaders to use the summit to bring an end to so-called tax havens (I will correct the errors in the letter in a separate blog shortly). Later that day the deluge of data from the Panama Papers became publicly available. David Cameron was then overheard telling the Queen that some ‘fantastically corrupt countries’ would be attending the anti-corruption summit, and the media began to get excited about Oxfam taking over Trafalgar Square on the day itself and creating a ‘tax haven beach scene’. 

Yes, the media are gearing up to cover the summit but, amid the hype, a few key points are getting blurred.

The Panama Papers that were released on Monday didn't appear to have the ammunition they had threatened. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said that they were publishing the information because it was in the public interest. 

Yet while information about company owners, proxies and intermediaries are now in the public domain, the really personal information from the leaked Mossack Fonseca documents is not. The ICIJ's decision not to publish the most personal information is to their credit. It suggests to me that even those most fervently in favour of making information public recognise that there is a line of privacy which should not be crossed.

From the hundreds of thousands of intermediaries, officers and entities mentioned in the Panama Papers, it seems that around 14,500 have so far been found to have Jersey connections, with the vast majority formed many years ago and most now wound up. So far there have been a few small stories involving the leak which have mentioned Jersey, but there is little controversy.

The national media seem much more fixated on Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who was named in the Panama Papers as having a company in the BVI. The response  she gave to the media, who all published the story next to flattering photos of her, illustrates perfectly the risks inherent in a public registry.

Watson's spokesman said: "UK companies are required to publicly publish details of their shareholders, and therefore do not give her the necessary anonymity required to protect her personal safety, which has been jeopardised in the past owing to such information being publicly available. Offshore companies do not publish these shareholder details. Emma receives absolutely no tax or monetary advantages from this offshore company whatsoever - only privacy."

There is a difference between something that is of interest to the public (such as Miss Watson's financial affairs, provided it's next to a photo of her) and something that is in the public interest (which I don't think her perfectly legal financial affairs are). 

A public registry provides grist for investigative journalists and NGOs. But it can be used by the malicious, not only the curious. One risk is that it's used to identify potentially lucrative victims of extortion and kidnap. Jersey's system, with competent intermediaries and client confidentiality, is far more effective way of stopping corruption without the need for publicity. 

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