How RNZ, TVNZ and Nicky Hager joined forces to tackle the Panama Papers

11:26 am on 10 May 2016

First Person - Two weeks after RNZ, One News and Nicky Hager joined forces to tackle the Panama Papers, Alex van Wel looks back at how and why the collaboration came about.

RNZ and TVNZ aren't natural bed-fellows.

We at RNZ float in a delightfully non-commercial world, guided by our Charter's public interest. Audience size is critical to us, of course, but we sometimes pretend it isn't. TVNZ, on the other hand, openly fights it out in the battle for ratings.

But we're both being disrupted by digital - our audiences have become on-demand engagers, and we're being handed colossal databases to make sense of.

The question is whether we turn it to our advantage, or hold onto old ways.

(L-R) Patrick O'Meara, Lee Taylor, Jessica Mutch, Gyles Beckford, Jane Patterson, Andrea Vance and Nicky Hager at work on the Panama Papers.

Digging into the Panama Papers - (L-R) Patrick O'Meara, Lee Taylor, Jessica Mutch, Gyles Beckford, Jane Patterson, Andrea Vance and Nicky Hager. Photo: RNZ / Jeremy Brick

Click here for full Panama Papers NZ coverage

Still, the notion of a partnership with TV came as a shock to many RNZers.

More than anything, they asked why?

But it took the journalists - the only ones in New Zealand with access to all the documents that make up the Panama Papers - only seconds to realise the benefits of collaboration, of sharing our knowledge, our expertise, and our ideas.

They saw the answer in a flash: none of us are better than all of us.

We agreed in our first joint meeting to be open about our work and to publish or broadcast our findings simultaneously.

Instead of racing each other to a half-baked headline, we'd give the story the time and thought it deserved.

Even the most hardened amongst us was surprised by this spontaneous meeting of minds.

"Wow. That was good," investigative journalist Nicky Hager emailed me after the first meeting.

Nicky, TVNZ's Editor Newsgathering Phil O'Sullivan and I quickly put down a few simple ground rules and unleashed the hounds.

Lists of names and companies to investigate were shared immediately, emails spun around with leads, lines of enquiry and ideas on how to divide up the work.

But access was a problem and training had to be done via a dodgy video link to Latin America.

Then the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) announced it was making some of the Panama Papers data public today - 9 May, putting the pressure on us to come up with something quickly.

Three RNZers, three TVNZers and Nicky got together in a small, stuffy room in RNZ's Wellington office, and started digging.

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Nicky Hager, left, and Gyles Beckford. Photo: RNZ / Jeremy Brick

Methodical checking in a database of over 11 million documents takes patience, organisation and persistence.

I dropped in from time to time to assess the mood.

There was a bit of hesitancy at first, as the team got used to this new world of collaboration, but within a few hours any nosy editors entering the room were roundly ignored.

Intense discussion over this lead, that company, this trust, that fund, absorbed them.

Chocolate, popcorn, and other gluten-laden treats littered the desk, reporter debris was everywhere.

The focus was the story: TVNZ and RNZ divisions evaporated.

There wasn't much sleep, but the enthusiasm was clear.

"I'm loving it," said RNZ's political editor Jane Patterson at the end of a 12-hour day last Monday.

By Wednesday a coverage plan had materialised, with 6am yesterday set as our target for story one.

(L-R) Patrick O'Meara, Lee Taylor, Jessica Mutch and Jane Patterson.

The reporters and their debris. Photo: RNZ / Jeremy Brick

Then the teasing started.

TVNZ asked to run a promo in their 6pm bulletin on Sunday night.

'What do they mean by a teaser?' Checkpoint host-turned RNZ's Director of News Programming Mary Wilson asked in her usual interrogating style.

'Hmmm,' I thought.

I penned a proposal which would have One News promo Morning Report in their bulletin.

TVNZ realised RNZ did have a sense of humour after all.

But that kind of intimacy was obviously out of the question. This was platonic, it was business.

"Our audiences are disparate," explained Phil. I murmured agreement, without being entirely sure what he meant.

We agreed the words we'd both use for the teaser, the timing of our stories, how we'd handle social media, and moved on.

"I'm alternating between excitement and nerves," TVNZ's Lee Taylor told me.

Yesterday went more or less according to plan, so it seems.

Our three-way collaboration with One News and Nicky remains intact.

I expect it'll still be strong when the Shewan really hits the fan.

The New Zealand Investigation: Andrea Vance (One News), Gyles Beckford (RNZ), Jane Patterson (RNZ), Jessica Mutch (One News), Lee Taylor (One News), Nicky Hager (Investigative Journalist), and Patrick O'Meara (RNZ).

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*The investigation into New Zealand links in the Panama Papers is a journalistic collaboration by reporters from RNZ News, One News and investigative journalist Nicky Hager, and with the assistance of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.