At the last count, there were 75 different British awards for journalistic excellence, from the Wella awards for "hair beauty writing" to the Martha Gellhorn award for journalists exposing "Establishment propaganda". But for newspaper journalists, the most glittering event is the British Press Awards, held last week in some splendour for more than 900 guests at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. The prizegiving came at the end of a rigorous judging process, of which I was chairman, requiring a panel of 40 judges to read a mountain of cuttings from more than 900 entrants in 27 different categories of journalism.
It struck me, as the journalists came up for their gongs to bursts of pop music and the cheers of their colleagues, that I was in a unique position to take the temperature of the British press. I had seen the newspapers at their very best. Here were the articles, pictures, cartoons and campaigns that the newspapers themselves had offered as their finest work. We hear so much about falling standards in newspapers (I've done a fair amount of moaning myself in the past), but here was a substantial rebuttal.
Even a lifelong newspaper nut like myself can't read everything that appears every day. So it was a marvellous experience to discover features, interviews and classic pieces of reporting I'd missed - an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson by Robert Crampton in The Times that seemed to catch the man exactly; Carol Midgley's deeply moving, yet restrained, report in the same paper about travelling with an old man on his final journey to voluntary death by euthanasia; James Meek's brilliant investigation for The Guardian into Guantanamo Bay; David Walsh's astonishingly candid interview with the jockey Kieren Fallon for The Sunday Times, which is doubly interesting in the light of recent events.
Anthony Miles, a former chairman of the Mirror group and a past chairman of judges, was quoted here last week as saying: "I think the overall standard of newspaper journalism today is higher than ever." My experience of these awards confirms me in that opinion. You might expect old editors like Tony and myself to wallow in memories of the good old days. But editing in our day meant cutting, cutting, cutting, because of the relative lack of editorial space in the period before Wapping and the new technology. We would have relished the space, the flexibility, the printing quality - and the talent in both writing and design - available to an editor today. Why, they can even change the whole shape of the paper and win a top award for doing it with such panache!
Those who denigrate the British press should read the war reporting from Iraq, particularly the great team effort from The Daily Telegraph, despite the uncertainties over the paper's future. There have always been great war reporters, but there were never so many - and an increasing number of them women - writing at the same time. Robert Fisk, Mark Franchetti, Marie Colvin, Ross Benson, all produced memorable pieces that would have won in another year, but the competition was so fierce that none of them reached the Hilton podium.
Investigative journalism is another area that has improved vastly over the past 20 years. Every scoop on the shortlist might have won in another year. Ryan Parry's undercover stories from inside Buckingham Palace for the Daily Mirror - exposing the lack of security on the eve of the visit by President Bush - simply had to win, which meant there was no award for David McGee's bold adventure as a warder in Ian Huntley's prison for the News of the World. The Sunday Times's leaks about the honours list were another fine example.
Those who snootily regard our red-tops as adult comics should read The Sun's coverage of the Soham trial, or its campaign against domestic violence, or the reporting of John Kay and Neil Custis's Manchester United scoop - "Fergie Decks Becks". The Mirror also had a good year with its royal stories by Ryan Perry and Steve Dennis on Paul Burrell.
Bill Hagerty correctly forecast in these pages last week that there might be "a punch up or two" at the Hilton, though this year's spat between Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and motoring guru Jeremy Clarkson was more like handbags at two paces than the fisticuffs of earlier years. Nor were there any spectacular walk-outs when the winners were declared.
Most of the bad feeling used to be engendered by the top award, Newspaper of the Year, which aroused angry rivalry among the judges. I moved to halt this when I was asked to be chairman last year, insisting that none of the judges in this category should be currently working for a national title. I brought in distinguished figures from TV news like Stewart Purvis, Richard Tait and John Sergeant, as well as grizzled newspaper veterans like Charles Wilson and an American, James Geary, from Time Europe. I also sought a fair balance between the sexes and editors from both tabloids and broadsheets.
One can only go so far with this handpicking of impartial judges, because the point of the whole exercise is that journalists should be judged by their peers. All newspapers nominate two judges of their own and it is my job, along with the organisers, to allocate them as shrewdly as possible to particular categories, bearing in mind their experience, affiliations and areas of special knowledge.
Nearly all the judges did a wholly professional job, putting the case for their own newspaper's candidates but also ready to acknowledge stronger arguments from across the table. There were a couple of cases of blatant log-rolling, but these were too transparent to be effective. (I have to confess that in days gone by I used to engage in some pretty dodgy horse-trading with David English at these awards, so that he backed my people if I backed his). In all honesty, however, I didn't see how any senior editor could be expected to vote for a rival as Newspaper of the Year.
How can you choose between critics like Brian Sewell, Craig Brown and Charles Spencer? Or between political writers like Matthew d'Ancona, Andrew Rawnsley, Donald MacIntyre, Quentin Letts and Trevor Kavanagh? Or columnists like Boris Johnson, Richard Littlejohn, Will Self and Deborah Orr? It often comes down to personal taste as well as professional judgement. Before reaching the winning post, however, a candidate's cuttings will have been seen by five or six judges, plus the chairman and assessors, which is a pretty exacting process. The debate is open, but the voting is secret. Only one of the organisers and myself know how many votes went to each candidate, but not who cast them. I don't vote myself, but I am called in to arbitrate where a category is too close to call.
To those who failed to win a prize, the only consolation I can offer is that the next big Fleet Street jamboree, the London Press Club Awards, will soon be here on 5 May - and we can start all over again.
Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer' between 1975 and 1993, and is now the chairman of judges of the British Press Awards and the chairman of the London Press ClubReuse content