Earlier this month, I posted an article expressing my opinion how the list should be dealt with. I argued that yes, it should be used by the authorities even though it was originally acquired illegally but also that “it should be used responsibly and discreetly. Absolute confidentiality must be maintained until such a point where legal action against an individual can be supported”.
The argument is being made that since the authorities had ignored their responsibilities for dealing with this information responsibly for two years, this was enough reason to have no confidence that they would deal with it responsibly this time around. Thus, the publication of the list was more or less a public service to make up for the public disservice of the authorities. That argument holds water.
I then asked myself what I might have done had I been a Greek journalist in possession of the list. First of all, I would probably have wished not to be in the possession of the list because it now forced me to take a terribly difficult decision (to publish or not to publish it). I would have searched my soul as to what overall principle should guide my actions and I hope that, as a guiding principle, I would have written down for myself: “Whatever I do, it must have nothing to do with any interest of my part to make news or to become famous! The only guiding principle must be the question of what is the best service to society!” I don’t know whether the journalist asked himself that question.
I guess that, before publishing the list, I would have given the authorities a chance to finally live up to their responsibilities. I would have told them that I would irrevocably publish the list in a week’s time unless they did the following: (1) appoint a non-political task force reporting directly to the Prime Minister; (2) have the task force announce an action plan as to what they will do, by when they will have done it and how they will report to the public.
For example, the task force could eventually have come up with the following report to the public: “We have examined 2.000 cases, 500 of which were clearly of a correct nature. We have written to the other 1.500 that they have to ‘come clear’ within a month’s time. ‘Coming clear’ means that they provide unequivocal evidence about the source of their funds and how they have been taxed in the past. If they cannot ‘come clear’, they can voluntarily pay all due taxes and penalties and come clear that way. Otherwise, law suits will be filed against them and the public will learn against whom law suits have been filed”.
Having said that, I would like to point out that “the list” represents chickenfeed. The authorities have blown it with chickenfeed but they could take this as their cue to act appropriately when it comes to the big stuff.
Why chickenfeed? Well, 2 BEUR isn’t exactly a large amount when considering the entire ‘black money’ which Greeks are estimated to hold offshore. Also, if you were a rich Greek, would you really put all your ‘black money’ into the Swiss branch/subsidiary of an international bank like HSBC? A bank where you always have to suspect that their international Head Office might know what you are doing with their branch/subsidiary in Switzerland? Or would you perhaps go to a ‘real’ Swiss asset manager who guarantees complete confidentiality?
Big stuff is around the corner. The authorities know that 25-30 BEUR have been officially transferred by Greeks to offshore accounts in the last two years and they also have the names of those Greeks, allegedly about 50.000 names. Allegedly, 35.000 of those names are not suspect whereas 15.000 are. In light of recent events, the authorities may wish to review whether it is really 35.000 which are not suspect. It sounds like an awfully large number. One could/should follow the same procedure as suggested above: form a task force, announce an action plan and a time frame by which one will render an account to the public.
The authorities blew it when the HSBC list was originally obtained two years ago and, two years later, they did not act consequently enough to convince a journalist that he should not publish the list.
The authorities now have the chance to demonstrate with the ‘big stuff’ that they can live up to their responsibilities and, in the process, they can restore at least part of their reputation.