The British Press Awards: The writers on the wall

Charles Wilson, former editor of The Times, on reforming the British Press Awards and setting up a hall of fame for journalists at the National Portrait Gallery
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In every area of public and corporate life communicating the message - influencing the media - is held to be as important as the product itself. Public relations is a massive growth industry and word-spinning, as it is now called, is the most highly prized political skill. Yet most public polls rate newspaper journalists, the prime target for all this effort and expense, somewhere between backstreet abortionists and parking wardens in popularity and respect.

Why? The ready response, as always, is to blame the red-top tabloids. But that is not the whole answer to the puzzle. Part of the solution, I believe, is that journalists themselves do not take their calling seriously enough and that is reflected in the manner in which the annual exercise of sorting the best from the commonplace and rewarding it in peer acclamation has been conducted.

In recent years the British Press Awards have descended from a public celebration of merit and quality to a raucous, loutish expression of pique, jealousy and resentment. This year the bunfight excesses were outshone in bad behaviour by a foul-mouthed oration from Mr Bob Geldof. It was finally too much for a number of national newspaper editors. There were calls for radical change and threats of a boycott.

The awards system is one of the few aspects of newspaper journalism in which we have lessons to learn from our colleagues across the Atlantic. The Pulitzer Prize system is held in the highest regard not only by newspaper people but by the public at large. Winning a Pulitzer is the ambition of every journalist in America. Writers who succeed are thereafter never referred to in print TV, or radio without the preface "Pulitzer Prize-winner...". Editors commissioning and briefing writers have used the phrase: "There's a Pulitzer in this...". so often that it has become a cliché in newspaper office banter. I cannot imagine a British counterpart saying: "This story will make you Political Writer of the Year."

Another aspect of the business where we have reason to envy our American cousins is in public esteem. In the States journalism is seen as an honourable and highly prestigious profession. There may just be a connection. If you take your awards system seriously, glorify winners and applaud excellence even in rivals, then perhaps your readers will begin to take you seriously, to hold you in the respect you might deserve.

As the disaffection over this year's British Press Award ceremony fomented, a catalyst for change appeared. A few weeks ago the Press Gazette, the journalist's in-house bible and the traditional organiser of the awards, changed hands. At first glance the new owners did not seem to bring much succour to the reformers. One of the partners was Piers Morgan, former Editor of The Mirror, and a man with a track record of just the sort of excitable press awards behaviour they wanted to eradicate.

However, his partner in Press Gazette, Matthew Freud, who runs a successful public relations agency, has a track record in running successful awards, both their judging process and their public celebration. His team have been credited with taking the Baftas, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards to a high status public event.

Freud's first move has been to assure the doubters that Morgan would play no part in the organising or judging of the awards, and that he, Freud, would play no part in the judging. The guardian chosen to ensure those promises are rigorously adhered to is me. I will chair the panel of judges made up of representatives of all the national newspapers. But they will not decide the outright winners as has been the practice in the past.

The panel will select about five nominees in each category who will then be judged by an 'academy' style vote similar to the Baftas. Voting will be on-line and academy members will be able to read on-screen the entries of all the nominees in each category.

Handing the final voting to an academy of several hundred professional journalists is designed to counter the charges regarding fairness, integrity, tit-for-tat voting and "Buggin's turn" selection that have plagued the awards. And it will reflect a more accurate broad peer appreciation of quality.

Other proposals for consideration include reducing the number of categories to allow the major awards greater emphasis, switching the awards ceremony to a lunchtime event to lessen alcohol consumption and the introduction of up to five special awards for journalistic excellence. These awards, likened to the Pulitzers, would be announced prior to the lunch ceremony and would win a bursary or prize.

A consultation process among editors and senior journalists will take place to attempt to achieve a consensus about the make-up of the "academy" and the general redesign of the system. One canard to be killed is the alleged bias in judging between broadsheet and red-top papers.

Quite separate from the awards, but aimed at further raising the status and profile of the profession, the Press Gazette is setting up a newspaper roll of honour or hall of fame that will be housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It will be launched later this year when a panel of Editors and ex-Editors will select 40 journalists who have contributed most to the newspaper industry in the last 40 years. At a major reception each year a new name will join the roll and his or her photographic portrait will be added to the gallery.

Journalists, whatever our faults, deserve an awards system that is professionally run and recognises and rewards true excellence with total fairness, integrity, and dignity. We should also aspire to have those qualities recognised in ourselves by our readers.

That will be our aim.

Charles Wilson has edited a number of broadsheet and tabloid newspaper in the US and the UK, including The Times, and is a former managing director of Mirror Group newspapers. He has been chairman of the Scottish Press Awards for the past five years.