Press Awards shocker. No punches thrown

On The Press: Have Piers Morgan and Matthew Freud saved journalism's Oscars?
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The Independent Online

Charlie Wilson was pushing a trolley round a supermarket when I caught up with him. Good to know that he is not cut off from real life like many of the main players in the national newspaper soap opera. The man who has edited more newspapers, including The Independent, than the fake sheik has had victims was back in the domestic routine while reflecting on the British Press Awards for which he was chairman of the judges.

Wilson's was not an easy mission. This year's awards so nearly didn't happen and Wilson was an important part of the rescue package, which had not only to restore respectability where there had been boorish behaviour but bring together newspapers which were blaming each other for that behaviour. It came off. One has to scrape the barrel for an example of traditional bad behaviour. The best I could find was a shout or two of "Nobody effing buys it" from The Sun table when The Guardian or The Independent won an award.

For the rest it was near-civilised behaviour, or as Wilson put it, "a celebration of journalism excellence rather than a bun fight." What went right?

Press award ceremonies over the years tended to mirror football terrace behaviour. They could turn ugly. Men who in their day jobs wore suits, earned large sums of money and wielded considerable power could, on awards night, turn into hooligans.

As with football, passions were heightened by the twin evils of drink and excessive partisanship. The class divide between tabloid and broadsheet also played its part. These were the days - I am talking about a year ago - of the macho tendency, male and female, when even if you were too sensible or sober to take part in the yobbery you still enjoyed telling the tales in the pub for weeks after.

The judges also came in for abuse. Decisions were questioned, bias alleged. In terms of the corporate image of journalism, it was not good. The crunch came at last year's awards dinner. The catalyst was Bob Geldof, who traded verbal blows with the Mail contingent; things became rather ugly.

The more reflective realised belatedly that bad behaviour at big industry events does get around. Low respect for print journalists and lack of trust in newspapers is hardly helped by stories of binge drinking and yobbish behaviour.

The innocent player in all this was the self-effacing trade paper, Press Gazette. Its moment of the year, for both visibility and income, was the organisation of the Press Awards. Now they were owned by former Mirror editor Piers Morgan (who himself had form in terms of awards dinner behaviour) and PR Matthew Freud. These were not necessarily the low-profile, uncontroversial figures best placed to restore dignity and good behaviour to the awards.

For a while, it seemed entirely possible that there would be no awards. Ian Reeves, the editor of Press Gazette, patiently negotiated with the editors who had threatened to boycott to bring them back on board. The dinner was moved from the terraces of the Hilton to the all-seater stadium of the Dorchester. And Wilson became chairman of judges. Only the Telegraph and Mail titles refused to participate (plus the Express, which always does). Morgan and Freud sensibly stayed away.

Wilson says he saw no example of uncivilised behaviour at Monday's dinner. Reeves, at his seventh awards dinner, said he found it the most "respectful" he had been to. He cited in particular the sports journalist of the year, the Mirror's Oliver Holt, paying tribute to senior rivals on the short list, and Hala Jaber of The Sunday Times, foreign reporter of the year, speaking movingly of colleagues who had died covering the Iraq story. Reeves believes all the issues of a year ago have been addressed and the awards are back on track. He hopes the Telegraph and Mail titles will rejoin.

Wilson feels, I sense, quietly confident that they will. He is surely right. The Daily Mail, particularly, which has won so many awards over the years will not want to make itself ineligible for much longer.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield