This article was first published in the May 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazines.

Lessons learnt from the so-called Panama papers, apparently the biggest data leak in history, could be in inverse proportion to the amount of information unleashed. In other words, very little. 

We learn that criminals like to hide their illegally acquired wealth and so are grateful for the secrecy that offshore financial centres provide. And that offshore financial centres can help legitimately wealthy individuals in minimising the tax they pay. 

A secondary lesson is that we (that is, all law-abiding, tax-paying members of civil society) think we need better transparency and information-sharing between governments and regulators to catch criminals and their money. 

Some people defend the use of legitimate tax planning tools such as offshore centres, pointing out that tax avoidance is legal and tax evasion is illegal. For this group, wealth management – ie keeping the tax bill as low as legitimately possible – is nothing other than common sense. 

Yet lots of people are outraged by those who use such tools and techniques; the really outraged ones put on Hawaiian shirts in chilly April and marched on Downing Street to vent their disgust. This group has given up on the niceties of the distinction between tax avoidance and tax evasion and find it much easier to talk about people or companies not paying their ‘fair share’ of tax. The trouble with ‘fair share’ is that it’s one of those terms that has whatever meaning you would like it to have at any moment in time, and is as much help in bringing light and sense to the debate as that other favourite phrase ‘aggressive tax avoidance’. 

None of all this constitutes a surprise. What is turned up after raking through the Panama papers has little bearing on the reforms that governments were working on before we had all heard of Mossack Fonseca. So it was with a delicious sense of timing that the European Commission issued its latest proposals for tackling corporate tax avoidance in Europe days after the leaks became headline news. 

The commission’s answer is segmental reporting: requiring multinationals to publish information on where they make their profits and pay their tax in the EU on a country-by-country basis. The European parliament reckons the EU loses up to €70bn a year in avoided corporate tax. The commission’s proposals require the alignment of tax laws in all 28 countries and a recommendation to member states on how to prevent tax treaty abuse. The commission believes that country-by-country reporting will enable citizens to scrutinise the tax behaviour of multinationals, which will encourage the latter to pay tax where they make their profit. Will it really? It would be more likely to happen only if someone were also to nail down the meaning of profit and find a way to stop cross-border profit-shifting.

It is probably at this point that the accountancy profession comes in. To those upset by tax avoidance, finance professionals can use their technical knowledge, assuaging outrage by suggesting how to close loopholes and constructing a tax system that effectively clamps down on such avoidance. To those happy to use whatever avoidance is on offer, accountants can help them do that but maybe with one caveat. Because perhaps the biggest lesson of the Panama papers is this: using the same havens and instruments as criminal classes will, simply by association, tarnish the reputation of the legitimate and the bona fide –  and those who advise them. But maybe that is a lesson for the spin doctor or the moral philosopher to teach, rather than the accountant. 

Peter Williams is an accountant and journalist