The highest honour at the 2014 Pulitzer Prize awards has gone to The Guardian US and The Washington Post for their coverage of intelligence leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, a decision that has angered conservative British MP and former defence secretary, Liam Fox.
The mastheads won the Public Service award category for “a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper or news site”.
Upon presenting the award, the Pulitzer committee commented that through “aggressive reporting”, The Guardian had “spark[ed] a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.”
The Post‘s stories were “marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security,” it said.
However, in a speech to Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, Dr Fox accused The Guardian and the Post of “pathetically amateur behaviour” that put the lives of British troops at risk.
“Their toxic mixture of ignorance and arrogance is compounded by basic incompetence in the way in which information has been handled,” he said.
“It is not our security agencies who undermine freedom or democracy. It is the terrorists, the criminals and the enemies of our country who seek to do so. What sort of distorted logic suggests that compromising our security agents, potentially putting their lives in danger, is a service to democracy?’
Snowden, who is in Russia after being charged with espionage in the US, said the award was “a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government”.
In a statement to The Guardian, Snowden said: “We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation.”
He said that the leak “would have been meaningless without the dedication, passion, and skill of these newspapers.”
Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said that the masthead was “truly honoured” to receive the prize.
“This was a complex story, written, edited and produced by a team of wonderful journalists,” he said.
“We are particularly grateful for our colleagues across the world who supported the Guardian in circumstances which threatened to stifle our reporting.”
Editor-in-chief of Guardian US Janine Gibson said: “We’re extremely proud and gratified to have been honoured by the Pulitzer board.
“It’s been an intense, exhaustive and sometimes chilling year working on this story, and we’re grateful for the acknowledgement by our peers that the revelations made by Edward Snowden and the work by the journalists involved represent a high achievement in public service.”
The win also came in for criticism from an unusual quarter: former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.
Hardly an authority on ethic matters, Mr Coulson said during his trial over charges emanating from phone hacking at the former British Sunday tabloid that “if they came to me at the News of the World, I think I would have turned them down”, citing “a potential for lives to be put at risk”.
Mr Coulson made the comments during questioning by his defence about public interest tests applied to newspapers regarding issues such as breaches of privacy.
He asserted that the NoW generally operated under the principle that readers had a right to know about those seeking to get into public office.
“Of course I ended up working on the other side of the fence,” he added, “but I broadly maintained that position – people have a right to know about their politicians.”
The Pulitzers have 21 total categories (14 for journalism and 7 for books, drama and music) with the Public Service winner receiving a gold medal and the 20 other individual winners receiving a certificate and US$10,000.
In the March edition of The Bulletin, The Newspaper Works asks senior Australian editors what they would do with a story like Snowden’s – read more here.
Find the full Pulitzer Prize list at pulitzer.org.
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