Data Is Power. Sort Of.

Through all of the storms and tempests to have hit the publishing industry over the last twenty odd years, one title has survived – seemingly against all odds.

It has resolutely refused to put much of its content online, charges for its physical product and is (almost*) entirely made up of original content, often the result of good old fashioned investigative journalism, with nary a quickly re-formatted press release posing as an article in sight. The publication in question is Private Eye and thank God it still exists.

However one down-side of this reticence to get swept along by the ‘digital revolution’ has been the fact that most people never get to read what is in Private Eye; the fact that its editor, Ian Hislop, has been on prime-time TV in the UK for nearly 25 years now, is some compensation. But still, what Private Eye covers is too important to be the preserve of the (relatively) few who buy the magazine.

Which is why their latest campaign is so fantastic: to highlight how much of the UK is now owned by overseas investors, many of whom have very shady backgrounds, they have created a maps-mashup which:

(reveals) for the first time the British property interests of companies based in tax havens from Panama to Luxembourg, and from Liechtenstein to the South Pacific island of Niue. Using Land Registry data released under Freedom of Information laws, and then linking more than 100,000 land title register entries to specific addresses, the Eye has tracked all leasehold and freehold interests acquired by offshore companies between 2005 and 2014.

Why would this be of interest?

Well, based on their research they have uncovered industrial level tax-dodging by property developers and owners on land totalling 490,000 acres of England & Wales – which is bigger than Greater London to put things in proportion. When we’re constantly being told that we can’t afford to go on in the way we have up till now, one might hope that having all of this information in the public sphere might mean changes actually have to be made over and above the cosmetic ones promised by the government to date.

But of course knowing that you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house because large swathes of the country are being bought up in order to reduce tax bills for shell firms, hedge funds & aristocratic trusts doesn’t necessarily guarantee action. After all, Ian Hislop has been making jokes about this sort of thing for almost as long as the web has existed, and whilst we all laugh, it suggests that the joke is really on us.

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