1965 - | Australia & USA | Investigative journalist
After a career as an investigative reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Gerard Ryle developed a new model for international investigative reporting at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington DC. Appointed director of the ICIJ in 2011, he raised the money for resources to build an international scoop machine. His triumph was to harness the trust and firepower of hundreds of journalists around the world to organise simultaneous publication of reports of huge leaks to documents on tax avoidance through the use of tax havens. The leaks raised global public awareness, encouraged law reform and forced the resignations of a number of politicians, officials and business leaders.
Early in his career Gerald Ryle confided in those closest to him his dream of one day working as an investigative journalist in the United States. They privately dismissed his ambition as fantasy, given the insurmountable hurdles in his way, but indulged him anyway.
How wrong they were.
Ryle not only made that dream a reality, but along the way rewrote the rule book on investigative journalism. Today he heads the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which under his leadership has rapidly evolved into a truly global organisation backed by the world’s cream of investigative journalists.
He and the ICIJ have won world-wide acclaim for a series of vast and complex investigations into secretive offshore tax havens. The investigations, the largest in the history of journalism, united investigative journalists from some of the world’s leading media outlets.
It was a remarkable journey.
As a 23-year-old, Ryle arrived in Australia in 1988 from his native Ireland, where he cut his teeth on the Irish Press. He quickly proved himself. Joining The Age’s Insight investigative unit, in partnership with me, he won three Walkley Awards and two Melbourne Press Club Quill awards.
Ryle established a reputation for thoroughness and detail that were to become hallmarks of his investigations into topics ranging from police and government corruption and institutional abuse of state wards to exposing international corporate fraudster Tim Johnston and his Firepower petrol saving pill.
“Gerard used his Irish charm to open doors, but once inside he laboriously picked through the facts to get to the truth,” one former colleague remembered. “His motto was: ‘If in doubt, leave out’.” Another described him as a worrier rather than a warrior. On the eve of publication, he could be found triple checking facts right up to when the presses began to run.
A move to Sydney Morning Herald as head of its investigative unit brought a fourth Walkley, but Ryle’s sights remained firmly set on that elusive American dream. A Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan saw that hunger grow. It also started him thinking of ways to continue quality investigative journalism at a time when news outlets around the world were closing or cutting costs in the face of the financial threat posed by the internet.
Ryle was convinced there had to be a model that would succeed. That way opened in 2011 while he was working as deputy editor of the Canberra Times. Through contacts made in Michigan, he was offered a senior role running the ICIJ in Washington. Under his leadership the ICIJ would later become independent from its founding parent, the Centre for Public Integrity.
Working with a relatively young team of reporters and computer experts, he set about finding that elusive new model for tackling global investigations. At the same time he was endlessly knocking on doors with cap in hand begging the funding that was the ICIJ’s tenuous financial lifeline.
There followed two crucial investigations that would firmly establish that revolutionary model for investigative journalism and guarantee the ICIJ’s future.
The Panama Papers and later the Paradise Papers brought together a network of 380 journalists from nearly 80 countries in 30 languages to investigate leaked details of secretive offshore tax havens used by the rich and powerful. Ryle flew around the world, convincing major news outlets that the only way to tackle such stories was to co-operate and share information, rather than the traditional model of competing with one another.
Keeping the vast investigations secret and winning co-operation from individual journalists and news outlets took all Ryle’s skill and Irish charm. Not least of the many problems was getting news organisations around the world to agree on a single publication date.
Ryle and the ICIJ also had to pioneer a new form of computer assisted reporting, establishing a searchable database and virtual newsroom for journalists around the globe to access the four terabytes of leaked data, 24.9 million files, 514,000 offshore companies and almost 40 years of records.
The result triggered a global storm of media, political and grassroots reaction. Public protests led to the fall of the governments of Pakistan and Iceland, multiple arrests, sweeping legal reform and official inquiries in 79 countries. Governments worldwide recovered more than $500 million in lost revenue, including in Australia.
Accolades flowed for Ryle and the ICIJ.
Amongst more than 50 awards were a coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2017, three George Polk Awards, and honours from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Overseas Press Club of America, the New York Press Club and Harvard University. Ryle and his ICIJ colleagues also shared an Emmy Award with the US television program, 60 Minutes. And in 2013 Ryle picked up his fifth Walkley Award, this time for outstanding leadership, before being awarded the 2018 Press Freedom Medal by the Australian Press Council.
Much to his relief, solid financial support for the ICIJ began to flow, including US$1 million from Hollywood’s Foreign Press Association.
“We’ve said it again and again. Some stories are too big, too complex and too global for lone-wolf muckrakers or even individual news organizations to tackle,” Ryle says. “We believe collaboration is the wave of the future in global journalism. Pooling resources and sharing information is a powerful way to investigate and expose stories that politicians, corporations and organised criminals are determined to keep in the shadows.”
On World Press Freedom Day 2014, Reporters Without Borders said Ryle’s work with ICIJ was “the future of investigative journalism worldwide” and it named him as one of “100 information heroes” of worldwide significance.
For Ryle it should have been a dream come true. But he was too busy worrying about his organisation’s next investigation.
Gary Hughes is a multi award-winning investigative journalist. In 2009 he won a Gold Walkley and was named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year for his coverage of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
ICIJ offices in Washington D.C.
Gerard Ryle profile, ICIJ website
Media Watch Interview: Behind the ICIJ’s Investigation
'Irish Journalist Heads Up ICIJ', The Irish Times, 16 April 2013