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BAD-TEMPERED. Riotous. Menacing. These were some of the more printable epithets on the lips of attendees at this week's British Press Awards. All was sweetness and light at London's Hilton Hotel as The Independent continued on its winning way, with Deborah Ross and John Lichfield making graceful trips to the winners' podium.

EARLY INDICATIONS that this might be a night to remember came with an unfunny and remarkably ill-judged speech from presenter Nicholas Witchell (pictured). He referred to a Sun front page on 12 January which splashed a picture of sexpot Robin Cook beneath the headline: Would YOU sleep with this man? The paper had supplied phonelines for readers to vote yes or no. Remarkably, 866 of the 7,028 callers said they would do the deed of darkness with the gnomic one. "There must be 866 blind Sun readers," the newsreader quipped. The gag went down like a cup of cold sick - the room convulsed with a collective cringe.

SOME OF the 700 journalists at the gathering felt that a Guardian story about fake TV (is there any other kind?) was tame compared with tabloid exposure of William Straw's flirtation with cannabis, and broadsheet disclosure of Murdoch's move on Manchester United. Voices were raised as unprecedented catcalls, booing and hissing erupted among angry hacks. Chanting began: "Off, off, off." The hapless Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, cowed visibly. Neil Wallis, editor of the Sunday People, stormed the stage, seized the microphone and ranted (no irony here) that the tabloids had been stitched up. Red-topped BBC newsreader Nicholas Witchell tried to gently ease this impromptu Jarvis Cocker from his bully pulpit as organisers unceremoniously cut sound from the mike.

HACKS FROM the Daily Mail and The Mirror then bailed to the bar for an animated discussion about tabloid ethics. This rapidly escalated into flying fists and spilt blood. The cops were called. A room of testosterone- sated journalists plus unlimited liquor... what could possibly go wrong here?

THE EXPRESS editrix and her senior executives decided, wisely in retrospect, to give the event a wide berth. It was left to Sunday Express editor Michael Pilgrim to host the conspicuously low-profile Express Group table. It was so far away from the action, it was, according to one guest, "like Siberia".

How annoying for Lord Hollick, the Vampire of the Grey Lubyanka, a man reputedly on first-name terms with many of the banknotes in his wallet. Hollick must have been looking forward to seeing some return for the pounds 1,250 spent on the team's table. Sadly the three newspapers in the group could only muster one-and-a-half nominations between them - producing a net result of zero wins. So, it's back to the daily diet of Kennomeat chasseur for the luckless Lubyankians.

POSHOPOLIS FOOD critic AA Gill found himself confronted by a burly tabloid hack rounding up a posse to put the effete Guardian in its place. Gill, perhaps battle-weary from his last encounter with Robert Kilroy-Silk, enterprisingly impersonated a gutter-press photographer unjustly deprived of a win. "I'm well up for it, mate," he reassured the bruiser in immaculate mockney.


BUT, FINALLY, it was irrepressible Mirror capo Piers Morgan who led an eight-strong tabloid raiding party to a specially booked suite where The Guardian was catering to more than 20 socks-and-sandals types. Morgan arrived with a drinks trolley, a generous gesture that proved de trop. A now exuberant Guardian editor (Alan Rusbridger) demonstrated his scintillating grasp of intra-media discourse by bursting into a football-terrace chant as he eyeballed Morgan. Security were called to clear the revellers at 5am.

It's rumoured that the Post Office may not be sponsoring the event next year. They don't know how to have fun like this at the Oscars, do they?

Contact Pandora by e-mail: pandora@ independent.