Journalists can't lose with a sex scandal

Just when you think frivolity rules, the Pulitzer prize comes along to honour the best. By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

There are sex stories that win prizes in British journalism and there are sex stories that win Pulitzer prizes. Nigel Jaquiss, 42, was announced last week as a Pulitzer winner after adopting journalism as a second career following 11 years trading oil on Wall Street.

There are sex stories that win prizes in British journalism and there are sex stories that win Pulitzer prizes. Nigel Jaquiss, 42, was announced last week as a Pulitzer winner after adopting journalism as a second career following 11 years trading oil on Wall Street.

It was in February of last year that Jaquiss and colleagues from the little-known Willamette Week in sleepy Oregon began investigating the extraordinary influence of a consulting firm set up by the former governor of Oregon, Neil Goldschmidt. During the investigation he heard rumours that Goldschmidt had been sleeping around. But Jaquiss was not so much interested in the tales of Goldschmidt's affairs with adult women, as in the story that this local legend - who had done more than anyone else to build the modern city of Portland - had sex on a regular basis with his 14-year-old babysitter, and then bought her silence over the next 30 years, as her life fell apart.

Through public-records searches, Jaquiss and his colleagues identified court documents that described the sex abuse in detail, even though the baby-sitter had agreed not to pursue her legal claim after Goldschmidt offered her a private settlement worth close to $250,000. The Willamette Week found more than a dozen people who confirmed the relationship, and then traced the victim to Nevada, where she was trying to rebuild her life after suffering from drug abuse, rape and time in prison.

When the paper told Goldschmidt of its intention to publish he attempted to place a more sympathetic version of the story with a rival paper. But the WW rushed an outline of its investigation on to its website before running a 4,000-word article by Jaquiss in its next edition. Goldschmidt resigned from public life. "The 30-year secret: a crime, a cover-up and the way it shaped Oregon" won Jaquiss, and the 89,000-circulation Willamette Week, this year's Pulitzer for investigative reporting, defeating a rival entry from The New York Times.

Then there are the sex stories of the British press. It is less than a month since the great and good of British national newspaper journalism gathered at the Hilton hotel in London's Park Lane to celebrate the industry's best work of 2004. Three sex stories about extra-marital affairs involving consenting adults, which ran under the headlines "Svengate exclusive: screwed!", "Beckham's secret affair" and "Blunkett's affair with married woman" helped the News of the World win the title of "Newspaper of the Year". The decision of the judges was unanimous. They praised the paper for its "vitality, originality and leading the way with some of the biggest stories of the year".

Next month Jaquiss will attend a lunch at Columbia University in New York to receive his highly coveted award. He will be joined by The Boston Globe's Gareth Cook, whose journalism was praised for "explaining, with clarity and humanity, the complex scientific and ethical dimensions of stem-cell research" and a team of Los Angeles Times reporters who, in a five-part series comprising more than 50 stories, uncovered a web of deadly hazards and racial injustice in one of the city's major public hospitals.

Other Pulitzer winners include Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times, for his exposé of the corporate cover-up of fatal accidents at railroad crossings, the Chicago Tribune's Julia Keller, who produced a seven-month investigation and 13,000-word second-by-second account of a tornado that killed eight people in Illinois and Dele Olojede of Long Island newspaper Newsday, who went to Rwanda and delivered what the judges described as a "fresh, haunting look" at the country a decade after "rape and genocidal slaughter had ravaged the Tutsi tribe".

According to Professor Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers: "At a time when news media are often criticised for inadequacy, the newspaper winners this year - and the finalists - are heartening examples of high-quality journalism in all parts of the nation. It is particularly notable that many of the entries focused on malfeasance and misbehaviour. Those newspapers were performing the watchdog function of the press."

Donald Trelford, former editor of The Observer, and chairman of the judges at the British Press Awards, says American and British print journalists operate in "entirely different newspaper cultures".

"American journalism is very different from ours - it has far more space than we generally do," he says. "We had a judge last year from America. He actually said 'Aren't we measuring your newspapers against The New York Times? Isn't that the standard against which newspapers should be judged?' He was laughed out of the room."

According to Trelford, the heavyweight American papers that tend to scoop most of the Pulitzers are "a bit like The Times was like in the 19th century - catering for an élite".

He defends the chequebook journalism that is behind many tabloid scoops, saying it is about more than just a financial transaction. "There's an awful lot of diligent research that needs to go on to justify a buy-up. You can't take it on trust. Buy-ups are often the result of the cultivation of contacts," he says, adding that The Sunday Times's famous Thalidomide campaign in the Seventies was assisted by payments made to key sources.

Last year's great buy-up was the Max Clifford-brokered story that England footballer David Beckham had been having sex with his personal assistant, Rebecca Loos. The British Press Awards judges declared it "Scoop of the Year", and said it was "a sensational exclusive that resonated with readers across the world".

Stuart Higgins, a former editor of The Sun, says British print journalism is in rude health because of the intense rivalries between papers. "The British press creates great scoops because of its fierce competitiveness especially at the tabloid end of the market," he says. "Can The Sun outdo The Mirror or the Mail, can The Times out-exclusive the Telegraph? But what is a real scoop? In American terms, Bernstein and Woodward's Watergate revelations which brought Nixon down is a frontrunner but we in the UK are awash with great scoops and exclusives every week."

Whether British journalists will aspire to the kind of work the Pulitzer judges look for or will concentrate their energies on exposing the sexual dalliances of the footballing élite is open to question.

Bob Franklin, Professor of Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, says many students who graduate with the noblest intentions find them thwarted as they are pushed towards the "lighter, frothier" agenda that newspapers believe readers want. "They always seem to start off with aspirations of Woodward and Bernstein and end up somewhere else," he says. "They have honourable, public service ambitions. They see journalism as a critical watchdog holding government and the powerful to account. But when they actually get into a post, they find few opportunities to make that ambition manifest."