It was as luxurious a party as you could imagine. For three and a half hours at the National Portrait Gallery the champagne and oysters never stopped flowing. Even the fish and chips towards the end of the evening evoked memories of a former age; they were wrapped in newspaper. The fish was nothing as unsophisticated as battered cod; whitebait was mixed in with the chips. The enjoyable event must have cost Reuters, who were paying for it, a fortune.
But is it appropriate for journalists to celebrate themselves and their achievements? Tuesday night's party was held to mark the 40th anniversary of Press Gazette, a publication unknown to the public at large but read by many journalists. It is their trade magazine. The centrepiece was the announcement of the 40 inaugural members of the Newspaper Hall of Fame, drawn from the 40 years in which Press Gazette has published.
At least this event was tasteful and well behaved. No bread rolls or abuse were thrown, unlike the annual British Press Awards, also organised by Press Gazette, which fell into such disrepute that they almost died. They have just been resuscitated, with new rules and a new location designed to regain respectability.
Press Gazette has been bought and sold many times. Piers Morgan spent a small part of his book proceeds and severance cheque after "standing down" (the current euphemism) from the editorship of the Daily Mirror on becoming its latest owner. He is not the sort of man to suggest a quiet drink in the office to mark a major anniversary. He celebrates like he edits, flamboyantly.
When I think Hall of Fame I think America, and I think country music, or golf, or American football. But British journalists? Press Gazette's editor, Ian Reeves, refers to a "world that doesn't often realise the true value of journalism". So it is time for the unsung heroes to be sung.
We live in an age of celebrity, fostered by, certainly reflected by, wide sections of the press. Celebrity must be built and maintained, so there must be a public relations industry, working closely with the press, to provide the interviews, gossip, events, public-private lives and awards of the celebrities. Few weeks pass without an awards night. Footballer, film, book, car, advertisement, any number of products, have their "... of the year" award. And, vitally for the sponsors, coverage of awards night. But journalists?
Well, yes. Journalism awards have proliferated. The British Press Awards, Yorkshire Press Awards, Trinity Mirror Regional Press Awards, Northern Business Journalism Awards, North West Press Awards ... That's just to mention a few of those I have judged in recent years. Broadcast is just the same: Sonys, Baftas, BBC awards. Showbiz is fine. Performers live or die on stage or screen, and the awards are simply an extension of what they do. We would all miss Dickie Attenborough's tears and the gushing tributes to those who made it all possible. But journalism?
Journalism is by definition on the outside looking in. Journalism stands between those who exercise power and those whose lives are affected by their decisions. Journalism discloses and explains what those who hold the power would prefer left unexamined. At least, good journalism does. Most of the Hall of Fame 40 have practised good journalism or encouraged it to happen. The modern-day greats are there, although obviously any such list has contentious inclusions. The editors there are all ex-editors (too risky to include a current editor who may have "stood down" before the big night?). And at least five of the panel of eight who made the selection - Paul Dacre, Harold Evans, Max Hastings, Kelvin MacKenzie, Alan Rusbridger, Peter Stothard, Andreas Whittam Smith and Charles Wilson - were as worthy of inclusion as some of those who were chosen.
But aside from the entrails of the Hall of Fame, isn't this all a bit establishment, a bit on the inside looking in? Of course, journalists have always been interested in themselves, but have tended to celebrate each other among themselves, usually over a drink, knowing that the public seldom notices or recalls bylines and most people cannot name the editor of the paper they are reading. The age of celebrity has spawned the age of the celebrity journalist and the growth of awards.
All this at a time when journalism and journalists are held in low esteem and little trusted. Are these two things connected? If the world doesn't realise the true value of journalism, it is journalism that must change that perception, not mutual back- slapping. I like to think that most of those in the Hall of Fame, a majority of them dead, would be content to be judged by their peers and successors simply for their journalism, and would have had some distaste for a form of celebrity status owing more to Hollywood than rattling the cages of the powerful.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
THE HALL OF FAME
David Astor Editor, The Observer
Cyril Connolly Literary reviewer
Hugh Cudlipp Editor-in-chief, Mirror Group
Bill Deedes Editor/reporter, Daily Telegraph
Nigel Dempster Gossip columnist, Daily Mail
David English Editor, Daily Mail
Paul Foot Campaigning journalist
Carl Giles Cartoonist
Felicity Green Women's editor, Daily Mirror
Denis Hamilton Editor, The Sunday Times
Alastair Hetherington Editor, The Guardian
Simon Jenkins Columnist
Paul Johnson Editor and columnist
John Junor Editor, Sunday Express, and columnist, Mail on Sunday
Trevor Kavanagh Political editor, The Sun
John Kay Chief reporter, The Sun
Albert 'Larry' Lamb Editor, The Sun
Lynda Lee-Potter Columnist, Daily Mail
Ann Leslie Foreign correspondent
Bernard Levin Critic and columnist
Richard Littlejohn Columnist, The Sun
Matt Pritchett Cartoonist
Don McCullin War photographer
Hugh McIlvanney Sports writer
Vincent Mulchrone Columnist, Daily Mail
Andrew Neil Editor, The Sunday Times
Gordon Newton Editor, Financial Times
Bruce Page Investigative reporter, The Sunday Times
Chapman Pincher Investigative reporter
Peter Preston Editor, The Guardian
Marje Proops Agony aunt, Daily Mirror
William Rees-Mogg Editor and columnist, The Times
Gerald Scarfe Caricaturist, The Sunday Times
Mary Stott Women's editor, The Guardian
Nick Tomalin Foreign correspondent, The Sunday Times
Jill Tweedie Writer, The Guardian
Keith Waterhouse Columnist, Daily Mail
Charles Wintour Editor, Evening Standard
Ian Wooldridge Sports writer, Daily Mail
Hugo Young Columnist, The Guardian
George's sorry tales
One of the sadder aspects of the latter stages of George Best's life was his fondness for selling stories to a red-top press anxious to print anything about him. One of his friends was deputed to do the haggling on the former Northern Ireland star's behalf. The going rate was generally about £50 for one-liners from the great man. He had a particularly good relationship with the News of the World, one of whose reporters ended up as confidant to both George and his ex-wife Alex. "That was one of his best sources of income," says my man in the pub.
Old ones are the Best
No tribute to George Best would be complete without reference to the anecdote in which Best is asked, when lying on a bed engulfed by champagne, money and Miss World, "Where did it all go wrong?" Indeed, the story is one of the most oft-repeated in football. One electronic library reveals it has been retold 177 times in the past 12 years.
Sanjeev Bhaskar, star of The Kumars at No 42, has put out a curious statement to the press. He expresses his pleasure at the programme's recommissioning before moving on to more personal matters: "Although Meera [Syal, his wife] and I are looking forward to our first child arriving, we are not planning to spend any time at all with it, but are going to allow it to forage, which is the way we were brought up ..."
Bob's friends in the mob
Bob Marshall-Andrews is still waiting for an apology from the Evening Standard over a front-page story that said he had called fellow MP Jim Dowd "a faggot". Bob, author of a book about the fall of the Medicis, says he had in fact been using the term "faccio" (pronounced as "faggio" by Mafiosi), meaning a do-er or gofer. "I wrote them a not very friendly letter intended for print, but it still hasn't gone in," says B M-A, who has not ruled out legal action.
Small talk at Sky
They are an accommodating lot at Sky News. They recently raised the seat of a diminutive expert invited to sound off on the channel, in order not to make her look small. But she was still too short, so one of her fellow pundits found himself having his seat lowered as he sat in it. Only then did all the talking heads line up.