Michael West

Investigative business journalist Michael West, who was recently told by The Sydney Morning Herald his skillsset wasn’t “aligned with Fairfax strategy going forward”, this morning launched his new website — a home for the journalism he has every intention of continuing even though he no longer has one of Australia’s major media companies behind him.

West’s latest investigation was due to run in the Fairfax papers the week after he was sacked (a term he uses — Fairfax says it was a redundancy). He took the story with him. It’s live this morning on both his website and The New Daily, which has syndicated it. It looks at the role of the big four accounting firms — PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young — in both facilitating tax minimisation for their clients and advising governments on how to combat it.

“They are both architect and engineer,” says tax insider George Rozvany in West’s investigation. “They sell the (tax avoidance) schemes to the multinationals; and in the case of the LuxLeaks scandal last year, they arranged the deals in secret with government, to the detriment of all other sovereign nations and their taxpayers”.

Speaking to Crikey on Friday, West said he had no doubt the investigation would “ruffle a few feathers” and help pull together the links in the public’s understanding of global tax minimisation schemes.

“Over the past four years, the public’s become aware that multinational tax avoidance is a big problem. Conservatively, it’s one trillion US [dollars] into tax havens a year, which is slipping out of the grasp of Western governments. We know the companies doing it — most are household names.

“What hasn’t been clearly identified to date are who are the those who engineer the scam and so on. And that’s the next leg of the stories.”

This has been West’s bread and butter for years at Fairfax, and he says stories on tax avoidance and minimisation have always struck a chord with a wide readership. So have stories on the energy sector — another area West plans to keep reporting on. He’s hopeful he can figure out a business model to keep doing what he did at Fairfax independently,

On the business model, he says he’s got a few ideas but is coy on the specifics. He says he has a potential backer, but it’s early days.

“I will take contributors, I will syndicate, and I will look to do special projects for particular funding as well,” he said. “My state at the moment is zero income, small child, large mortgage.”

On the website’s name (michaelwest.com.au), West seems ambivalent. “I always wanted to make story first and not myself. Unhappily, Fairfax have somewhat made me a martyr for the crime of journalism.”

When news of West’s departure from Fairfax was broken by Crikey in May (his was one of several dozen redundancies as Fairfax looked to cut costs in editorial), hundreds of figures in media and politics were quick to offer their support. West says his phone ran hot, but he doesn’t think it was entirely about him. “I think my sacking became a symbol of what’s happened in the mainstream media, and of disappointment with Fairfax,” he said.

“I think in this area of the media, there’s such a hole now. You have Fairfax being gutted of experienced journalists in this area. There’s very few people left who can read a balance sheet, very few who have the courage to go after big corporate stories.”

Though he is quick to point out Adele Ferguson is still at The Age. When he got a tip, West recalls, he’d often ask whether someone had also approached Ferguson. “We were rivals and colleagues,” he said. “But still, there’s very few people left to prosecute these kind of stories.

“I think there’s a big public need for it.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey