Even though phone-hacking at the News of the World has been the dominant media story of the past few years, it cut little ice at last week's Press Awards. It was short-listed for scoop of the year, but lost (ironically) to the News of the World for its cricket corruption story. Even though The Guardian, the leader of the campaign, was named newspaper of the year, the citation (deliberately, one suspects) mentioned only its WikiLeaks revelations.
Is it that the newspaper world is collectively embarrassed, or even in denial, or that it thinks final judgement should be suspended until the Metropolitan Police have completed their second inquiry? It was certainly an awkward coincidence for the organisers that two senior News of the World executives were arrested on the day of the awards ceremony. Even so, the paper won several individual awards and the editor, Colin Myler, looked defiantly unembarrassed when he went on stage to collect one.
News International's defences seemed to be collapsing, however, as the week wore on. Apologies were made to eight celebrities for raiding their voicemails. A legal offer was made to bring all 24 complainants under the umbrella of a collective class action. Millions of pounds have been paid out in compensation and many more seem likely to follow. The assumption being made from these concessions is that the phone-tapping was "rife."
Meanwhile, Andy Coulson, who has had to give up two top jobs over the affair – as editor of the paper and as communications director to David Cameron – is walking his dog and planning a climbing expedition while he awaits the outcome of the police inquiry. One sometimes feels that The Guardian won't stop campaigning until Coulson is behind bars.
Where does that leave those, including this writer, who have argued that the affair has been overblown? Obsessive and hysterical were two of the words I used in these pages to describe the campaign – "a case of dog eats dog gone barking mad."
The points I have been making are that the phone-tapping happened a long time ago, that it wasn't confined to one paper, that lessons have been learnt, that the editors' ethical code has since been strengthened, that raking it all over so persistently was damaging the press's ability to fight for better legal safeguards for freedom of expression, and that we should wait for the results of the police inquiry. I would now add that the arrested editors have not been charged, let alone convicted, and that I still believe in Coulson's personal integrity.
I felt that The Guardian's campaign was not just motivated by a concern for media ethics, but to undermine for commercial reasons Murdoch's bid to get full control of BSkyB and – while Coulson was in Downing Street – to weaken Cameron and the coalition government.
I also found something dishonest in The Guardian's presentation of Leslie Ash's picture on the front page last week. This is a paper that affects to despise the celebrity culture, yet chooses to parade one – and one that Guardian readers would hardly know – simply because she provided evidence to support their case.
The police have yet to report and until they do the game isn't over. I have to admit, however, that The Guardian and the other papers that support it, including this one, seem to be winning – and if they succeed, maybe it will show that you need to be a bit obsessive to win such marathons.
How better to judge the Press Awards
There was a muted response among guests at the Savoy awards ceremony to The Guardian's nomination as newspaper of the year, and one could just imagine the swearing and smashing of crockery among infuriated rivals from Kensington to Canary Wharf. The Society of Editors, who have commendably taken over this event, point out that it was decided by an "academy" of over a hundred distinguished journalists, including the editors who were so upset by the verdict.
Having been involved in press awards myself for about 35 years – I have judged four different awards in the past few weeks and even won the odd one as an editor in the distant past – I can sympathise with both sides. How do you decide between the serious papers and the Mails, the Mirrors and unashamed red-tops like The Sun and the News of the World – for which second group the public itself may be said to vote by buying many more copies? They use very different skills to address wholly different audiences. How do you compare a 5,000-word interview in The Sunday Times magazine with one of 600 words (if the writer's lucky) in a red-top tabloid?
The answer is that you have to try, and to do that fairly you need judges who understand all kinds of papers. An "academy" sounds utterly respectable and independent, but it lacks a crucial element in the judging process – the clash of argument. The judges sit in isolation in front of their keyboards, not knowing what the others are thinking.
When I was chairman of the awards, I set up what I hoped was an independent group of experienced journalists to judge the newspaper of the year, none of whom had any current association with any of the titles under review. Looking back, I can see that we didn't get it quite right.
The panel was too old and too masculine, too heavily weighted in favour of former editorial executives rather than writers, and it didn't take enough note of circulation success in reaching its decisions. But I still think that the best way to proceed would be for a carefully chosen group of neutral and experienced hacks to sit round a table behind closed doors and hammer it out together.
Donald Trelford was Editor of The Observer, 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University.
Stephen Glover is away
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