James Desborough is in exuberant form.
“I would love to get one of my interview subjects to say oral sex gives you cancer,” he jokes, referencing Michael Douglas’ recent unguarded comments and the celebrity story du jour.
However, even without getting the scoop on the sexual proclivities of Hollywood A-listers, Desborough has pulled off a coup: the adoptive Californian has been nominated as entertainment journalist of the year at the Los Angeles Press Club’s SoCal Journalism Awards.
The ex-News of the World showbiz reporter (pictured above with Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow) is the only freelance among the nominees, which include journalists from mainstays of the LA gossip scene such as Variety, People Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.
To many, the nomination signals a remarkable change of fortune for a man who, a little over a year ago, was facing the prospect of going to prison for doing his job.
It was in March last year that Desborough was released without charge after a torturous eight months on bail on suspicion of phone-hacking under Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting. At the time, Desborough said he looked forward to resuming his career “after eight months on hold”, but the 40-year-old tells Press Gazette that his work never really stopped.
“I just carried on working, trying to break news and finding stories in the best way that I could. It wasn’t a case of anything more than that.
“I was hopeful that everything would work out and I would be able to carry on with my life as before.
“Many news organisations and individuals were extraordinarily supportive of me during that time and continue to be so after I was cleared.”
Even if he is phlegmatic when it comes how the hacking scandal that engulfed his alma mater affected him personally, Desborough is under no illusions about the impact it has had on the British press.
“I think every journalist, after the closure of the News of The World, no matter what organisation they work for, felt that their job and their role and their respectability was called into question and examined to some extent. No matter what newspaper you were on you felt that your stories were being examined to a greater degree.”
And now he sees a real danger in the austere post-Leveson environment.
“Stories are not being followed because there are concerns not about whether it is true or not but about how the world would look at that story.”
To Desborough, the potential sea change in how journalists are expected to behave affects British reporters more not because the practices of our press pack are so beyond the pale, but because they are prepared to go further than their peers in pursuit of a story.
He says he is “proud to be a British journalist working in Hollywood” and from a more distant perspective he can identify what it is that sets his compatriots apart.
“Living in LA, you realise that British journalists are a unique breed. Our ability to chase down stories is unique and still very strong and the world is beginning to appreciate that as a lot of big stories have come from British papers going out and finding them.”
That distinction does not only apply to celebrity scoops and their natural home in the red tops. Desborough references the recent parliamentary sleaze allegations, sparked by investigations from The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times as examples of the kinds of stories that the British press do best, and the future of which are now threatened.
Asked specifically about the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World, he says: “I think the world has felt the impact of what happened but one of the things that continues to shine through is that the British media still has the ability to set the news agenda.”
Now a freelance, Desborough first arrived in the land of the free on the News International payroll in 2009. Three days after he landed, Michael Jackson was dead and Desborough was plunged into a story that would dominate the last few years of his professional life.
“It was a busy first weekend,” he says. “It’s a story I’ve been on top of ever since I’ve been here”
Desborough broke a series of exclusives about the singer’s death, many of which are now being confirmed as the civil case between the Jackson family and his promoter AEG plays out in an LA courtroom.
“Much of the reporting that British journalists did and stories that British newspapers broke are now all being revealed to be true in the lawsuit.
“It’s a rare example of a story where all the things that we ran that were being questioned are there in black and white, being discussed.”
For Desborough it’s yet another example of how the much-maligned British is often best placed to uncover the truth. He insists that is why the likes of himself and former News of the World colleague Colin Myler are so in demand stateside.
So, it’s not just because the English accent plays well with our American cousins, then?
“No,” he laughs. “I think that just works for actors!”