Stop press: the end of the Piers and Matthew show

On The Press: Whoever buys journalism's weekly will have to solve the prize puzzle
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The Independent Online

Prominent media figures have as many enemies as friends. This is the case with Matthew Freud and Piers Morgan. Both rich men - Freud through his public relations company, Morgan through a lucrative editorship of the Daily Mirror, a substantial severance deal after his fall from grace and a successful memoir - they decided 16 months ago it would be fun to buy Press Gazette. Now they have put the loss-making trade paper for journalists on the market.

Press Gazette sells fewer than 6,000 copies a week and loses money, but the red balance sheet is not the only reason for the sale. Celebrity media people, large egos and journalism awards also figure in the decision.

When Freud and Morgan took over Press Gazette, the latter's influence made it much brighter, produced more mischief, gossip and media celebrity interviews. All things media people love. One of Press Gazette's major sources of revenue comes from its organisation of journalism awards, most importantly the British Press Awards. Traditionally these have been presented at rowdy dinners which, as an awards judge, I have seen for myself. Year after year, senior staffs of national papers, assembled at separate tables, would trade abuse, and whichever title won an award would have its success savaged by rivals.

Then came the 2005 awards, when Bob Geldof made some vulgar remarks about the Daily Mail. Its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, seethed and a fissure soon followed. The Mail and Telegraph titles decided not to take part in the event. They didn't like what they saw as the tackiness of the annual dinner. They didn't like the idea of a commercial publisher, Press Gazette, making significant money out of the celebration of journalistic excellence. And then, a little later, they did not like the idea of Freud, married to Rupert Murdoch's daughter, making money for his company out of the awards.

Negotiations involving some of the most senior figures in journalism ensued, but no peace came. Earlier this year the awards went ahead more soberly, at lunchtime at the Dorchester, but the Mail and Telegraph were absent, thus devaluing the event. Freud and Morgan also stayed away, rightly sensing their presence might be provocative.

Now Freud is selling Press Gazette, giving as one of his reasons the lack of support for the awards by some publishers. He thus connects the financial health of the paper with its running of the awards.

Meanwhile attempts at achieving a peace accord have continued, with Paul Potts, chief executive of the Press Association, the national news agency, in the Kofi Annan role. This led to an approach to Philippa Kennedy, vice-chair of the London Press Club, an organisation with more of a past than a present, and - cries of treachery - a former Press Gazette editor, with a view to her and the club organising the event on a not-for-profit basis, and making a contribution to the Journalists' Charity. This may happen. But time is short for putting together such a big event for next March.

Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of the Independent titles, said his papers would have entered the Press Gazette awards next time even under the Freud/Morgan ownership "just as we did last year. It would be inconsistent not to.

"I feel rather sorry for Press Gazette. They met all the editors, heard all the complaints and responded to all the suggestions. Still the Mail and Telegraph stayed away. If there are awards next year, we'll enter."

Perhaps Press Gazette will be bought by a publisher who could encourage the defectors to return, but there would still be the issue of the profits going to the magazine. Perhaps there will be no awards.

Do we need three sets of awards - the British Press Awards, the What the Papers Say Awards and London Press Club Awards? Wouldn't one set do? And if so, could not a truly independent organisation organise them as a charitable event?

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield