Naomi Harris recently received Press Gazette’s Regional Young Journalist of the Year award for her work at Exeter’s Express and Echo. One of her award-winning scoops involved going undercover as a lap dancer to expose the owner of a new strip club.
We found out that a club in Exeter – Mambos – had gained planning permission to open a strip club, but it went about it in such a way that not many people knew it was applying. We were concerned it was going to be offering services other than those licensed, and dodging taxes, so we decided to investigate.
It became pretty clear that doing a normal interview wasn’t going to work, so we looked at the possibility of using a hidden camera and I found a detective agency that was willing to lend us one.
I didn’t actually want to do a lap dance, and there’s not exactly many places to hide a camera. But I arranged an interview with the manager and brought the camera with me.
In the two days beforehand, I logged on to a few online lap-dancing forums and a few of the girls were talking about having to do ‘extras’and about how you’re paid. It’s quite an unusual system of payment, so in order to make my cover seem plausible, I had to understand the system of payment and have a strong story about why I wanted to do this. I said I was heavily in debt and had no family to help, making out that I was desperate and willing to do anything to make money.
The interview went on for just under an hour-and-a-half, and eventually she opened up to me. Initially when she was quite cagey, I started thinking, this woman’s legitimate and I’m effectively spying on her! But then as the interview progressed and she started to talk about the side to her business that wasn’t so kosher, my professional feelings took over and it became another story I was after.
I’d never done anything like this before, but I really enjoyed it! It turned out that they were trying to cheat the taxman and, by the end of the interview, I had even been assigned a pimp.
I went straight back to the office to watch the video and do the transcript. It was really exciting, especially as I was on features at the time and it was my first real news story.
This story brought about my first dealings with the court, but the editor was confident and seemed quite amused by it all. He’d been there for 18 months and had had no legal action; I’d been there a matter of weeks and had this big legal writ coming. through. The story had definitely caused a bit of controversy.