A week before I arrived at The Los Angeles Times in the Sixties the paper ran an editorial saying that the race riots in New York and Philadelphia could never happen in LA. The conditions of black people were so much better. Three weeks later the worse riots in American history blew up in Watts, and it turned out that no one on the staff paper had ever been there.
They may have missed the beginning but The LA Times soon made up for it by pouring reporters on to the scene and producing a week-long series investigating the causes. The paper (myself included) got the Pulitzer Prize for its superlative coverage.
That was my first lesson in journalistic awards. It's not when you report it, it's not how good your reports are, it's how big a presentation you give. Pity the poor foreign correspondent warning for months what was developing in Bosnia or Kosovo and getting a single column story at the bottom of page 13 for his pains. Come the war and it's the big-name writers who get the awards.
The second lesson about media awards I learnt when I was on the panel of the British Press Awards: It's not judgement that necessarily matters; its often your negotiating skills. There you are, charged by the editor to get more prizes than the competitors in order to kick start another circulation drive. You know the shortlists, and who's in for what. You know who you really want to get a prize. Your task is to negotiate your way through the similar ambitions of your colleagues.
Mistake number one for new judges is to go only for your own list. One managing editor I remember hadn't even read anyone else's offerings. The result was that he didn't get a single prize.
No, you have to show interest in your fellow judges candidates so that they show interest in yours. Establish their priorities and agree to vote for them in return for their support on your best bets. Don't negotiate with your nearest rivals. Go for the papers with just one or two names in the final voting. They will be eternally grateful if they go home with one cup. The big boys with half a dozen in the pot would as soon destroy as support you.
Which brings one to the real cut-throat of the numbers game. In any award there will be two or three papers competing to come home with the highest number of prizes. It matters. Marketing departments go mad with the masthead proclamations of triumph.
I have seen strong men storm out of the judging room when they've failed to get the one crucial award. I've seen wine thrown across the table when the double deal is revealed and the paper you've voted for in one category fails to support you when it comes to your turn.
As the crucial moment comes when all are about to cast their votes for the scoop of the year or the foreign report of the year or whatever, a quiet voice from the end of the table pipes up: "It's undoubtedly a great piece. I remember reading it before in another paper, by a Sara Jones I think. Not as well written of course." No one around the table knows whether it had appeared elsewhere or not. But the thought of Private Eye's scorn hangs heavy. The jury votes instead for the number two candidate - your own.
It is all changing, of course, with steps taken to stamp out the worst of the back-stabbing and dirty tricks. The British Press Awards have resorted to secret ballots, a proportional voting system and almost independent judges. But as long as newspapers are about display and editors send their deputies to bring back the trophies awards will always be about effect rather than content. And why not? Journalism is showbiz. The only thing missing is an award ceremony with the antics on the stage to match the shenanigans behind it.
Adrian Hamilton is comment editor of 'The Independent' and a former deputy editor of 'The Observer'
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