The media column - Peter Wilby prefers a proper scoop
The media awards industry prefers one-day wonders, often of significance only to Westminster cognosc
Congratulations to Stephen Grey who, as announced elsewhere in this issue, has won an Amnesty International media award for his brilliant New Statesman cover story (published under my editorship last year) on "Bush's Gulag". But I have a little axe to grind.
Grey's piece was shortlisted on an earlier occasion by the Foreign Press Association (which represents foreign correspondents based in London) for another award. It was beaten into second place by the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh, who reported the contents of the Hutton report shortly before its official publication. Kavanagh's scoop has received at least two other prizes.
The plaudits lavished on Kavanagh speak volumes about the London-based media, and I was surprised that foreign journalists had been sucked into this self-referential world. Kavanagh told us something that would become freely available to the public a few hours later. Its premature publication changed nothing.
Grey's story - about how the US was handing over terrorist suspects to regimes that used torture - followed months of unaided research. It exposed a practice that was secret and intended to remain so. The disclosure, eventually followed up by almost every serious newspaper and magazine in the world, may have saved the lives of some and the freedom of others.
The media awards industry, which grows every year, habitually ignores such achievement. It prefers one-day wonders, often of significance only to Westminster cognoscenti, and stories about trivial domestic scandals. In that, I am afraid, it reflects the priorities of the national press.
How were the Sunday papers to cover Hurricane Rita? Here was a rare example of a genuine news story that was due to break on Saturday, with the storm heading for Texas and expected to cause death and destruction. Better still, it would strike on the eve of the Labour conference, and editors could kick boring old, sales-depressing Blair and Brown off the front pages. But Rita let everybody down. The Sunday Telegraph's solution was to laugh its socks off at the TV channels that had also prepared for a major story.
The BBC had sent 34 reporters, producers and camera crew. Such foolishness at the licence-payers' expense! The paper's front page showed a Sky News reporter looking wistful and referred to the "full story" inside, headlined "Oops! TV crews left deflated as Rita blows herself out". This was accompanied by more pictures of glum reporters, one captured from a screen where the caption read: "Is global warming to blame?" The paper had thus made a useful political point: global warming is an anti-American invention and hurricanes are an opportunity for leftist media types to knock a successful capitalist country.
The Independent on Sunday, by contrast, takes global warming, and many other such threats, very seriously indeed. What with one thing and another that I read about in the IoS, humanity seems unlikely to survive the decade, never mind the century. So the paper greeted news of Rita's lamentable failure to sell Sunday newspapers with a warning that a hurricane is on its way to "extremely vulnerable" New York. Well, it hasn't actually been sighted yet, but it seems to be one of those "when, not if" affairs, which puts it in the same category as a pandemic of bird flu, another terrorist attack on London and the succession of Gordon Brown to the premiership.
Rita's failure had one blessing: it cleared the way for the Sunday Telegraph's recently appointed editor, Sarah Sands, to continue breaking exciting new ground. Following her courageous decisions to feature a male-on-male kiss and the word "fuck" in a Telegraph paper (which I noted in previous columns), Sands gave us a news-page picture of a baby on a potty. I believe this is another Telegraph first. It accompanied a story about "elimination communication", or EC, whose advocates insist "newborn babies can learn within days how to indicate that they need the lavatory" and therefore have no need of nappies. EC is said to be "sweeping America". A group with "members across 35 states" doesn't sound terribly sweeping to me, but I am prepared to believe anything of Americans, and I am all for newspapers keeping us abreast of cutting-edge thinking. I do hope, though, that when the New York hurricane finally arrives, Sands hasn't sent all her reporters to peer into babies' potties.
There's no getting away from cocaine. On Sunday, the News of the World had it on pages 7 (Kate Moss), 11 ("Queen's Guard is drug dealer"), 19 (a TV star I hadn't heard of "snorted cocaine") and 37 (another TV star was "in drug therapy with Kate"). It seems everybody, except myself and possibly NoW editors who accompanied all these stories with protestations of "shock", is on cocaine. On page 33, I found out why. According to a brief news story, "every banknote in Britain" has traces of the stuff.