Can money laundering be over-exposed?

Over the last couple of months, new chapters have been added to the Danske Bank story, and the matter of money laundering via its Estonian branch, with two high-profile new books each looking at the scandal from their own perspective.

Michael Budolfsen, Vice President

​Berlingske's investigative group, which won the prestigious Cavling Award, followed up on its already extensive coverage with a book entitled "Beskidte milliarder" (dirty billions), whilst business journalists Birgitte Dyrekilde and Lars Abild took a detailed look at the "laundering hunter", Bill Browder, who appeared as a named and key source in several Berlingske articles, in their book "Troldmanden" (the wizard).

Media discussion has followed on journalistic methods, criticism of sources and which part of the story has actually been told. I intend to leave all that to the attentions of others.

But the way I see it, the time has come to open a much-needed discussion on how all the allegations, public attitudes and 'viewpoints' arose. In other words, the picture that has formed in the public consciousness, around dining tables and in a large part of our society on how things really look in the financial sector, and what really goes on in a bank.

No one is in any doubt that things went on in Estonia that are totally out of our comprehension even for those of us working in the finance sector every day. And nor is anyone in any doubt that Danske Bank's senior management have failed spectacularly. But I do think that the story is beginning to attract more attention than the facts of the matter.

Here's an example: I am convinced that many people perceive the matter according to such eye-catching headlines as "Danske Bank has laundered DKK 1,500 billion". But that's not what has come to light – from journalists nor lawyers. What has come to light is that Danske Bank in Estonia may have been used to launder DKK 1,500 billion, which is not a matter of nuancing the discussion: it's a massive, substantial difference. Yes of course, the first version is more easily-digestible than the next, but that does not necessarily make it any more correct.

This sort of fact avoidance is a problem – not just in this case, but generally. When 'perceived reality' replaces the real thing, the wrong decisions are made, manifesting itself in a crisis of confidence, loss of market value and political capital. I hope that will (also) be one of the lessons we learn from the Danske Bank case.

The Danish finance sector is powerful, and critical journalism is vital. But power carries responsibility. The sector must bear that responsibility and re-establish its relationship with society, and trust in its work. That responsibility rests with everyone in a position of power, and society, the sector and the media need to exercise caution when it comes to substance, facts and the real background to what we perceive.