Thank God, I did not attend the annual British Press Awards last Tuesday evening, but I have received many reports of what went on. Even by its normal debased standards it was a remarkable event. Of course, there was the usual jeering and booing as journalists from rival newspapers went up to receive awards, but there was much worse. Andrew Marr, who handed out the prizes at the grisly dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, delivered a foolishly dumbed-down speech, liberally quoting Piers Morgan's new diaries, and his words and manner had the effect of lowering an already tacky occasion.
Bob Geldof spectacularly disgraced himself. After The Sun had been awarded the Hugh Cudlipp award for excellence for its coverage of the 20th anniversary of Band Aid, the former Boomtown Rat and self-appointed saviour of Africa took to the stage. He harangued the Daily Mail, The Independent and the Daily Mirror for not giving his activities the coverage he required. Four-letter words fell carelessly from his lips. He told a gross joke to the effect that a recent visit to the lavatory allowed him to confirm that rocks stars "have bigger knobs than journalists". Standing a few feet from this oaf was the bemused and respectable figure of Lady Cudlipp. Many non-journalists at the dinner - and not a few journalists - were shocked.
Geldof later had a fracas with Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, who took exception to The Sun's award. Fights have become a staple event of these occasions. Last year The Sunday Times's Jeremy Clarkson and Piers Morgan, then still editor of the Mirror, exchanged blows. This year Clarkson was determined to live up to his reputation for loutish behaviour, and on receiving some prize bellowed: "Piers Morgan, you are an arsehole". Such nice people, and such a credit to journalism. As for the awards themselves, they constituted a News International stitch-up, with The Sun receiving five gongs, and the News of the World carrying off the accolade of newspaper of the year.
I once read an article about Hollywood's annual awards for hard-core sex films - a grotesque and mind-boggling occasion to be sure, but one which by comparison with the British Press Awards might be judged staid and restrained. We know that journalists often drink too much and behave like boors, but surely as a group of people they are not quite as ghastly as these events would suggest. It is as though the organiser - Press Gazette, a weekly rag for journalists - has striven to put on an occasion which will show hacks in the worst possible light. By the way, the magazine makes a good deal of money out of these awards, charging £1,000 (without wine) for a table for 10, and up to £116 for each of several hundred entries, while receiving sponsorship from various brain-dead companies which for reasons known only to themselves want to be associated with this circus.
In my ideal world there would be no press awards at all. How can the News of the World be declared a better paper than The Guardian - or vice versa? It is comparing chalk and cheese. By which criteria can it be said that Simon Jenkins is a more accomplished columnist than Polly Toynbee - or the other way around? It is nonsense. But I accept that in the modern world people like prizes, with even writers submitting themselves to judgement, and I don't suppose that newspapers and journalists can get away from them entirely. Following last Tuesday's awful dinner, a number of newspapers - The Guardian, The Observer, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Express, Sunday Express, The Independent, Independent on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard - have announced they can no longer support the event in its present format. It is surely clear that Press Gazette has lost the plot, and is no longer capable of organising an event which does not drag our trade through the mud.
If these newspapers really are determined to set up new arrangements, they should bear in mind several considerations. Whether fairly or not, the present British Press Awards are regarded by many journalists as corrupt. It is believed that judges representing various papers indulge in horse-trading with an eye to securing an award for their own titles. Any new system should be transparent, and the judges would have to be seen as non-partisan. In a very competitive industry I do not know whether that is possible. Whoever hands out the gongs should not seek to make money out of it, and it would be sensible to limit the number of awards so that they mean something. Last, but not least, the event should take place at lunchtime, when there is a reasonable chance that journalists might drink less, and some distinguished guest might be encouraged to make a proper speech which elevated rather than lowered the proceedings.
As I say, I would be happy to be rid of the entire process. But if newspapers can themselves succeed in reforming the event, we will at least no longer have to feel ashamed of being journalists.
Is this a fair exchange?
Various big signings are taking place in the world of columnists, and the name of Simon Jenkins seems to be at the centre of most of them. Several weeks ago it was announced that he was leaving The Times to join The Guardian. As an ex-editor of The Times, Mr Jenkins had been very well paid by Rupert Murdoch, and many marvelled that the relatively mean Guardian could afford this magnifico. Would other columnists on the newspaper revolt? Now we hear that Mr Jenkins is to boost the family coffers by also writing a column for The Sunday Times. So as not to spend every hour of every day scribbling, he will probably have to give up his lucrative Evening Standard column, which his friend Max Hastings fixed up for him on becoming editor of that paper in 1995.
By way of revenge, The Times has now lured Cherie Blair's favourite columnist, David Aaronovitch, from The Guardian and The Observer, which are sister papers. Executives at The Observer are upset that they should have lost one of their star columnists, while his replacement at The Guardian is allowed to write for their rival, The Sunday Times.
People will have their own views as to whether Aaronovitch is a fair swap for Jenkins. Whatever one might say about the dumbing down of The Times, the paper did retain the distinction of having four superior columnists - William Rees-Mogg, Simon Jenkins, Matthew Parris and Anatole Kaletsky. Of course, it has other good writers, but these four were somehow in a class of their own. It is a blow to lose one. To lose two might be a calamity.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: British Press Awards
DONALD TRELFORD, London N1, writes:
Sir: As chairman of the judges for the British Press Awards, I must correct some of Stephen Glover's ignorant and damaging remarks about them. The awards, he says, "are regarded by many journalists as corrupt", and clearly includes himself in that number by asserting that "they constituted a News International stitch-up" , referring in particular to the News of the World being named Newspaper of the Year.
He suggests the judging system should be "transparent" and "non-partisan". The judges in that category were "non-partisan", in that they are currently unconnected with any national title, and the system was "transparent" in the sense that their names were all published in the programme at the awards evening. Since Mr Glover wasn't present, I'll list them for the record and invite him to say which of them he considers "partisan" or "corrupt".
They were: Jonathan Grun, editor-in-chief of the Press Association; David Schlesinger, group managing editor at Reuters; Mark Damazer, head of Radio 4; Rosie Boycott, former editor of The Independent and the Daily Express; John Sergeant, formerly political editor at ITN and chief political correspondent of the BBC; Adam Boulton, political editor at Sky News; David Mannion, editor of ITN; Paul Horrocks, editor of the Manchester Evening News; Terry Manners, editor of the Western Daily Press; David Yelland, former editor of The Sun; and Jean Morgan, retired media correspondent of Press Gazette.
Normally the judging is by secret ballot after a long debate. This year no formal vote was needed in the end because the judges had all agreed on the News of the World - a remarkable unanimity I have never come across before.
I am not involved in organising or staging the event. Unlike Mr Glover, however, I was present, and I have to say that I recognise very little in his second-hand description of the evening. It was relatively quiet by recent standards and everybody seemed to be having a good time. Mr Glover's characterisation of Andrew Marr's presentation was woefully wide of the mark; it was as urbane and intelligent as one would expect. Geldof's language was perhaps unfortunate, but this cannot be blamed on Press Gazette, since they didn't invite him (he was a guest of The Sun). In any event, his worst excesses were provoked by heckling from rival journalists - a number of whom, I dare to suggest, use that sort of language all the time. It would be ridiculous if, after so many years, the British Press Awards - and with them, quite possibly, the future of Press Gazette - were to be determined by emotional over-reaction to off-the-cuff remarks by a rock star.
NEIL THACKRAY, Chief executive, Quantum Business Media, writes:
Sir: Stephen Glover's article (The ridiculous awards circus that shames our profession Media Weekly 21 Mar) makes a number of untrue and damaging comments about the British Press Awards held on Tuesday 15 March, which event he did not even attend.
Mr Glover's criticisms about the event are unfair and are not grounded in fact. In particular, the suggestion that the awards themselves were anything other than independent is simply not true.
This year, the judges for the Newspaper of the Year award, in relation to which particular complaint was made, were all senior, respected journalists. This year the judges were unanimous in choosing the News of the World for the award.
The judges for all other categories at the ceremony were all senior executives appointed by the newspapers themselves, including The Independent, who cast their votes using a secret ballot system. The process was supervised by Professor Donald Trelford. The names of all the judges were published in the programme at the awards. We are confident that the process was scrupulously fair.
As to the reports of unacceptable behaviour by some of those attending responsibility for this cannot justifiably be laid at the door of Press Gazette or Quantum Business Media.
We are committed to the fairness and independence of the awards and to making the event one of which journalists and the sponsors can be proud. To this end, we invite constructive discussion from all those in the industry.
JODI CUDLIPP, email@example.com, writes:
Sir: In Media Weekly (21 Mar) Stephen Glover rightly described me as "bemused". He could have added angry. I was astonished, then appalled, when Bob Geldof leapt unbidden on to the stage, as I was handing the Hugh Cudlipp Award to The Sun for its Band Aid coverage. He grabbed the mic, stood in front of me, ignored Andrew Marr (the MC of the event) and annoyed everyone with crude words and criticism. Someone, somewhere must have tipped him off because the winners are a guarded secret until the event.
The whole evening was indicative of what the British Press Awards, and some journalists, have become rough, rude, rowdy, jealous, intolerant, boorish and belligerent. The reputation and circulation of their papers will suffer from this lack of pride in the job they are doing. As a former journalist myself, and wife for 35 years of one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, journalism is near to my heart. In the hope of providing the next generations of talented young journalists with an appreciation of editorial integrity, pride in their profession, and the fun that was ours, a group of us has organised an annual Hugh Cudlipp Award for the UK media student who most closely fulfils the Cudlipp criteria. It will be presented in January 2006 in what will be a more decorous environment than the recent warfare in the local zoo.
ANDREW MARR, BBC News, writes:
Sir: Stephen Glover criticises my "words and manner" at an event he did not turn up to (Media Weekly 21 Mar). Had he been there, he would have heard me criticise a journalistic culture too dismissive of the old reporterly business of getting out of the office and finding some facts a weakness exemplified by Stephen's own sloppiness. He again mentions the Piers Morgan diaries, which he has criticised for revealing details of private meetings. Further to that, it might just be worth mentioning a little history. I first fell out with Glover when he published a book about the early days of this newspaper, into which he emptied the contents of numerous private conversations with former friends, purely designed to ridicule them, in a mood of vindictive rage. None of us is pure in this regard, but Glover's hangdog sanctimony makes one wish that Trollope was still alive and writing.
CRAIG ORR, Wandsworth, London, writes:
Sir: I was all set to take my old friend Stephen Glover to task for describing journalism as a profession. But reading the piece, I discovered that Stephen had used the word "trade". Only the headline referred to "profession". So, to the guilty sub I commend this little homily from an old Scottish journalist: "To most it's a trade, to a very few an art. It's never a profession...except in the sense that if you're lucky you might get paid."
PAUL DONOVAN, Wanstead, London, writes:
Sir: Stephen Glover makes some valid points about the futility of award ceremonies. As a freelance journalist, I feel constantly at a disadvantage when it comes to entering such events. It costs anything from £50 to £200 to enter these competitions, which is nothing to a national newspaper. To a freelance, however, it is a lot of money, especially given that most of us feel that it is something less than a level playing field anyway. There is no doubt that the publications putting up multiple entries are going to expect to win most of the prizes.Reuse content