Media: The Street of Shame lives up to its name

Will Whitehorn went to the Press Gazette awards with high hopes. Then the fists started flying...

IN HER first year as editor of the Press Gazette, Philippa Kennedy has moved quickly. Its recent relaunch saw the masthead of the journalists' own newspaper redesigned, and the editorial copy has taken on a much livelier feel. So it was with a sense of great anticipation that I accepted her invitation to the press awards last Wednesday.

Despite the reputation of British journalism for its wit, flair and cleverness, the awards have never been renowned as a highlight of the year's social calendar. But as my taxi arrived at London's Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, I was intrigued to see whether Philippa had injected some life into them.

The evening started well. The massed elite of British print journalism were there (sadly, the overwhelming majority of them men), dressed in penguin suits and laughing and chatting to each other. The stage looked brilliant; the backdrop was a huge mock-up of a Press Gazette front page, highlighting the appearances of Rory Bremner and the newsreader Nicholas Witchell at the awards. I silently congratulated Philippa as she stood up on stage after some vintage Bremner and introduced the main show itself - the Oscars of British journalism.

Almost immediately, the evening began to turn ugly. I am no stranger to awards ceremonies and would be the first to admit that, whether they are celebrating public relations, marketing, music or corporate video, there is often a bit of heckling and the odd light-hearted boo or hiss. But nothing prepared me for the ill-tempered, bad-natured and frankly juvenile scenes that followed almost every presentation.

At best, the award-winners were greeted by desultory applause (apart from the triumphant cheering of their own tables) and even this modest handclapping had dried up by the time they reached the stage to collect their gongs. At worst, there were boos and heckles.

This malevolent atmosphere built up to a climax when The Guardian was awarded the prize of newspaper of the year. There were shouts and heckles as many people booed the editor of the winning paper all the way to the stage.

As the main part of the evening drew to a close, I looked forward to wandering over to the bar for a chat with some old friends. Sadly, that had to wait a while as Neil Wallis, the editor of The People insisted on taking the stage and launching a full-scale attack on the "broadsheet bastards" who had "robbed" The Mirror of its accolade, and generally oppressed the tabloids. Even though I sympathised with his position, I couldn't forget how the tabloids had criticised Jarvis Cocker for a similar protest at the Brit awards.

By the time I reached the bar, tension was mounting. Sensibly, the few women at the ceremony had retreated into the corners of the room. I have always found it fascinating that men, who dominate the industry, have managed to propagate a myth that senior women in journalism are catty, bitchy and unsympathetic to the camaraderie of their honourable profession.

So it seemed to prove a point that while the women were laughing and enjoying themselves chatting to their colleagues on rival papers, the men were getting aggressive and jostling each other. They weren't even funny with their drunken abuse of one another.

As I talked to a friend, a journalist walked by and snarled that he was surprised to see that person there. One senior female executive commented to me: "I feel as if I've stumbled into a stag night that has gone wrong. The worst thing is that my own editor, one of the nicest guys you could possibly meet, has completely changed character in the last half-hour."

I went back to the bar to talk to Stuart Higgins, the former editor of The Sun. Around us, at least two fights broke out, blood began to flow, and I saw one of the glass awards - the receipt of which is supposedly the high-point of a journalist's career - smash into pieces on the floor. I left, thus missing other low points, such as the two editors who squared up to each other and chanted playground insults.

The next day I spoke again to Stuart. He said: "If last night's events had happened at a showbiz or footballers' party, we would have stuck it on the front page of The Sun under the headline: `Savages'. As it is, I don't think I'm going again." Instead, there was just the odd paragraph here and there in newspaper diaries.

I know how Stuart feels. I was left feeling sorry for Philippa, who put a lot of effort into ensuring that the night was a success. But, worse, I was stunned to see the cream of British journalism behaving with so little grace.

It is time the gentlemen who inhabit the Street of Shame ask themselves a few searching questions before they tell the rest of the world how to put their houses in order.

The author is corporate affairs director of the Virgin Group

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