Leaks published last week by an international collaboration of journalists revealed how Canary Wharf-based, British bank, HSBC – one of the largest banks in the world – helped wealthy clients evade hundreds of millions of pounds worth of tax.
David Leigh, one of the journalists who worked on the investigation and published the documents in The Guardian, told EastLondonLines: “The information about tax evasion shows that there is a big contrast between the law for the rich and the law for the poor”.
The thousands of pages of data were obtained by a team of journalists from 45 countries, all members of The International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ). The papers unearthed details on 8,884 HSBC UK clients who were helped by the bank to avoid approximately $21.7bn.
In the UK, the bank’s headquarters are based in Tower Hamlets, one of the boroughs in London with a huge inequality between low-income and high-income citizens.
“People who live in Tower Hamlets, who cheat on benefits, get arrested and put in prison for very small amounts of money by the Government, whereas HSBC is there in the borough serving wealthy clients who have a Swiss bank account. If they are found out, [evading tax] nothing bad happens to them, they just have to pay and their name is kept secret”.
The ICIJ revelation of the names of thousands of accounts maintained by the bank for criminal, traffickers, tax dodgers, politicians and celebrities has focused attention on “the criminal misbehaviour of the HSBC”, explained Leigh. “The action is starting. For the first time the bank itself is under an investigation and I think this is a big step forward”, he added.
But the investigation has also shown how big business tries to manipulate the press as well as the tax system. Leigh explained how HSBC tried to stop The Guardian publishing the secret leaks. “They tried to use the law. They threatened they will go to court to prevent us from publishing. And the only reason that we were able to publish [is that] we were protected because we had this international collaboration” with the journalists.
In the end the case was covered by all the newspapers and media organisations in the UK, except The Telegraph. “It was a great mystery”, said Mr Leigh. There have been subsequent allegations, denied by the Telegraph that it watered down its coverage because HSBC threatened to withdraw advertising.
Leigh added: “HSBC tried to do the same with us. When we started to investigate they suspended the advertising with The Guardian so it was like a threat if you carry on.”
Video by Claudia Niubo Fe, Morgan Lisenhoff and Gehan Bashumailah