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A matter of honours

British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 1, 2005, pages 3-6

Contents - Vol 16, No 1, 2005

Editorial - A matter of honours 3

Nick Pollard - Diary of a disaster 7

Election 2005
Bill Hagerty - Spin, rottweilers and the virtual swingometer 13

Ivor Gaber - TV: dumb and dumber? 24

Kevin Maguire - When poacher turns gamekeeper 29

Clive Soley - The public is sick of us both 35

Emily Bell - End of the offline? 41

Steve Tatham - Al-Jazeera: can it make it here? 47

W Leon Smith - When principles stampede the herd 53

Suzanne Franks - The neglect of Africa 59

John Coulter - Moral reason never to tell 65

Kelvin MacKenzie - Why Paul Dacre's worth his million 70

Harold Evans on Ken Auletta 75

Bryan Wharton on the BPPA 79

Julia Langdon on Jon Snow 81

Charles Wheeler on Greg Dyke 83

Philip Jacobson on Stuart Allan/Barbie Zelizer 85

The way we were 46

  That we still feel the need to call them “the Oscars of British journalism” says it all. The British Press Awards have yet to earn the profound respect they ought to inspire. After three decades, it is time for British newspaper journalism to reclaim its professional honours. Things are hardly likely to improve while awards continue to be sponsored by plcs presuming the press will love them more. Forget the Oscars cachet. We should be nicknaming our honours after one or other of British journalism's late greats. The Beavers? The Northcliffes? The Cudlipps? The Scotts? The Delanes? Or perhaps the Camerons?

Otherwise, we are stuck with what the editor of this journal, in an Independent column, labelled “The Hackademy Awards”, which can leave us amazed, even appalled, and anyway could never match Hollywood's Academy Awards for pizzazz and televisuality. A more suitable American model for us would be the Pulitzers, which are not run for profit nor imprinted with the logos of sponsors, fingers crossed that their patronage will generate some PR advantage. Broadcasting, with its Royal Television Society and the BAFTA awards, manages to retain class and dignity, so why can't the press?

It was Hugh Cudlipp who came up with the idea of the British Press Awards, at first sentimentally called after Hannen Swaffer, a Fleet Street character remembered for little more than the mixture of dandruff and cigarette ash on his velvet collar, and for defining freedom of the press as “freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to”. Mirror Group funded an encouraging cheque to accompany each trophy and laid on a free and well-mannered ceremonial lunch at the Savoy. How things have changed. The British Press Awards now is a nice little revenue stream for Quantum Business Media; indeed, the profits from the company's events arm probably keep the industry's trade paper, Press Gazette, in business, for which we should be thankful. Quantum has brought in 22 sponsors, including Abbey (Newspaper of the Year), Virgin (Reporter of the Year), National Savings (Supplement of the Year) and Harrods (Sports Reporter of the Year). (This journal's Cudlipp Award, for excellence in popular journalism, has, since its inception, been sponsored by BT.)

A fee of £99 (freelances £54) is required for each entry, of which there were 871 this time around. Awards dinner tickets cost £1,575 (plus VAT) for a table of 10. Non-press companies now pay £1,775 per table and non-press individuals wanting to rub shoulders with us and duck the flying bread rolls shell out £180 per place. There is no cash prize for the winners, apart from the Cecil Harmsworth King bursary for the Young Journalist of the Year. There are 28 individual categories – twice as many as the Pulitzers. To complete so many presentations before dawn, winners are denied any time at the microphone. Thus the production is unique among gong shows in that it deprives its audience of those magic moments of rehearsed gratitude and tearful joy.

How impartial are the judges? Very. Indeed, one year a senior Daily Express executive saw the task as so sacred that he cast his secret ballot for the Daily Mail. Not one judge on that Newspaper of the Year panel rated the Express a contender. A slack-mouth among the organisers told the Mail not only that it had won but that the judges were unanimous, and the Mail reported its triumph accordingly. When the Express judge arrived at the office next morning, the editor was at his desk, thumping the Mail piece. The executive took his bollocking and uttered his own epitaph: “When you're a judge, you're a judge.”

The pussyfoot areas

Even so, when an award is ceremoniously presented by the marketing director of a business, who then poses for a publicity picture with the winner, the occasion does not claim quite the class of the Oscars, let alone the Pulitzers. Anthony Miles, a former chairman of Mirror Group and of the original British Press Awards, has expressed unhappiness about the addition of “bloody silly” categories. He may have in mind pussyfoot areas such as Property Writer of the Year, Food & Drink Writer of the Year, Travel Writer of the Year and Motoring Writer of the Year. Do such winners deserve to be honoured alongside such as Keith Waterhouse and Robert Fisk?

The Pulitzers manage rather well without fringe advertorial categories that hardly embrace its founder's mission statement: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself... An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.”

So let Britain's newspaper publishing groups establish something superior to the prevailing cynical anarchy, which can see three or more newspapers simultaneously proclaiming themselves Newspaper of the Year. Editors dub their titles Tabloid Newspaper of the Year, or Sunday Newspaper of the Year, with no better justification than that they were the only tabloid or the only Sunday on a shortlist. The Daily Express upstages the lot by awarding itself the title of The World's Greatest Newspaper (presumably, the London Evening Des is The Greatest Unpublished Newspaper in the Universe).

The London Press Club delivers its own set of awards and TV's What The Papers Say lays on a cynical awards lunch, serving up Lancashire hotpot and red cabbage of a quality unmatched in Granadaland. Still, nobody would argue that the chortling programme is the most scientific of the establishments bestowing the title of Newspaper of the Year. Larry Lamb, founding editor of the Murdoch Sun, wished he had walked out when his runaway red-top was proclaimed the big winner. It was “a humiliating experience” as the judges broadcast their scorn. Most editors would nevertheless have run a Newspaper of the Year slug up the mainmast. Instead, Lamb awarded his award two paragraphs on page 4 – below the fold.

Quite different demons drove Piers Morgan. When the Hugh Cudlipp Award was launched, Piers reckoned the Morgan Mirror must surely win the prize commemorating the paper's famous supremo. Alas, it was The Sun wot won it – and, alack, five of the seven judges had Mirror connections. Morgan not only didn't win it, he lost it, issuing dire warnings to Press Gazette, which noted: “He didn't actually spell out horses' heads on pillows, but we got the message.” Its subsequent leader was headlined The Unhappy Bunny of the Year Award. Contemptuously, Morgan launched “The REAL Newspaper of the Year Awards”, inviting readers to phone in their choice. Sure enough, the Mirror won, though only 930 from its then 2,303,510 circulation could be bothered to register support.

Thankfully, Morgan's REAL awards were a one-off. The publishers are left to meet the real need for real awards, probably delegating the organisation to an outside events company but donating the profits over and above costs to charity. Chairmen and CEOs are often mistrustful of each other and reluctant to act together – outsiders such as Lords Goodman and Marsh had to be recruited as chairmen of the old NPA because the proprietors could not agree on elevating one of their own – but industry leaders did bring themselves to sit down together and set up the Press Complaints Commission before something statutory was imposed.

Let them turn now to establishing new and literally superior awards for British newspaper journalism. Despite its excesses, the overall quality of our profession is higher now than ever. We deserve an awards set-up that is better than ever. Inviting the Pulitzer administrators to review our system and offer recommendations would be a start – although it might be no bad thing to neglect to invite them to the present Awards dinner.