The Henri Nannen Prize is considered the most prestigious journalism print prize in Germany, the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the United States.
So it came as a surprise earlier this month when, at the annual awards ceremony in Hamburg, three journalists from Sueddeutsche Zeitung rejected the award for the investigative news category.
The judging is similar to the Pulitzers in that submissions are weeded down to three finalists. This year, however, the Henri Nannen judges could not decide between two of the three finalists in the investigative news category. So they split the prize between Sueddeutsche, the largest broadsheet in Germany, and Bild, a populist New York Post-style tabloid that runs pictures of half-naked women inside.
It was the first time the award had been split, said Susanne Hacker, a spokesperson for the Henri Nannen Prize, by email.
Sueddeutsche was nominated for a series the Munich-based paper did uncovering tax evasion and corruption surrounding the Bayerische Landesbank that involved Formula One car racing. Bild was nominated for reporting that led to the resignation in February of German President Christian Wulff over a loan scandal. In 2010, Wulf became Germany’s youngest president at age 51.
According to the Henri Nannen website, judges must evaluate entries based on two criteria: reporting and social impact of the investigation.
“They started from scratch. There was no investigation by the public prosecutors, no suitcase stuffed with documents, no whistleblowers. Only the suspicion that there was more to the scandal surrounding the Bayerische Landesbank than was revealed by late 2010. Without the months of persistent work by the SZ journalists probably none of this would have come to light. A truly excellent investigative achievement.”
But the jury felt that Bild had done an equally impressive job. “They researched the story for nearly a year and were the first to reveal that the former German president had accepted a shady private loan in his prior role as the state premier of Lower Saxony – and had failed to tell parliament the full truth about it,” said the jury. Then Wulff resigned. “A case of greatest possible fall from grace,” the jury said.
“So, on the one side, a truly excellent investigative achievement,” said the jury on the Henri Nannen website, “and on the other a superlative example of social impact, both balancing each other out.”
When the double-winner was announced for Bild and Sueddeutsche, several German newspapers reported that it was met with some boos from the 1,200-person audience at the awards.
“Writing in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper earlier this month, Green politician Antje Vollmer called the nomination an ‘alarm signal’ which threatened to blur the line between ‘serious journalism and pseudo-journalism,’ ” said The Local, which publishes Germany’s news in English.
The Bild team of Martin Heidemanns and Nikolaus Harbusch happily accepted the award, a first for the tabloid.
But when the Sueddeutsche’s Hans Leyendecker, Klaus Ott and Nicolas Richter walked to the stage, they turned down the renowned award. Leyendecker is considered one of Germany’s best-known investigative reporters.
Leyendecker told the audience, “We do not want to be awarded together with Bild Zeitung,” according to translated stories in Hamburg’s Morgenpost and Tagesschau, a German TV news service. Leyendecker added that for the Henri Nannen Prize to include Bild amounted to a “break in the culture” because Sueddeutsche’s journalists don’t believe Bild does serious journalism.
“No recipient has ever before declined an award,” said Hacker in an email.
The German Journalists’ Association called for a restructuring of the jury and criticized the decision to provide a double-award under the headline: “Time for an Overhaul.” The Union said the jury had confused a newspaper scoop with deep investigative reporting, according to a translated version of an article in Sueddeutsche.
Sueddeutsche’s decision to refuse the award has drawn criticism for coming across as “arrogant,” and praise by others who don’t like the tabloid culture.
Martin Thunert, a senior lecturer in political science at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, said in an interview that Sueddeutsche might regret refusing the award.
“It might backfire,” said Thunert. He pointed out that what Bild did was considered brave by many because it had a long, close relationship with Germany’s former president.
“It may be considered too much of an honor for a tabloid,” said Thunert, “but you can’t overlook the fact that they turned against a federal president that they had been very much in bed with for the past two years. Saying they don’t want to be with Bild confirms a stereotype of Sueddeutsche as a liberal, elite paper.”
This is the second year that controversy has marred the prize.
“Last year the prize was taken away from one winner by the jury because in his article he gave the impression to have visited a site he wrote about personally,” said Hacker. “But during the ceremony he said that he never had been there.”
Guardian reporter Nick Davies won the Henri Nannen Prize for press freedom. Davies covered the News International phone-hacking scandal that resulted in Rupert Murdoch shutting down the News of the World; most recently, Murdoch deputy Rebekah Brooks was charged with interfering in the phone-hacking investigation.
Nannen, who died in 1996, was a journalist who founded Gruner + Jahr and the news magazine Der Stern, which he led from 1948 to 1980. Journalists submitted a total of 872 works from 154 print and online publications for this year’s Henri Nannen Prizes, awarded in his honor. Read more