And the losers are… journalists and the industry

By Ian Reeves

As
the News of the World team celebrated its award for scoop of the year
on the stage at the Hilton at last year’s British Press Awards, Paul
Dacre went over to the Sunday Telegraph’s table. Tapping Dominic Lawson
on the shoulder, he told him: “You should have won that.”

Associated’s
group editor-in-chief, it’s safe to say, had not enjoyed the evening
from the moment that Bob Geldof issued his foul-mouthed tirade from the
stage – and the result of this particular award probably sealed his
distaste for it.

It was a hotly contested category, in which
three scoops about the David Blunkett saga had caused heated debate in
the judging room some weeks earlier.

Each had a strong claim: the
NoW had been the first to break the news he was having an affair, but
without identifying the woman, Kimberly Quinn; the Sunday Telegraph was
the first with the accusation he had fast-tracked her children’s
nanny’s visa – the aspect that finally brought him down; and the Mail
had revealed that the visa had taken just 19 days to be issued – the
first definitive proof.

But the ultimate winner was another NoW
scoop – David Beckham’s affair with Rebecca Loos. A look at the secret
ballot voting forms shows that in the end, it won convincingly. Even
so, I suspect some judges emerged from the room with the nagging (but I
think, erroneous) feeling that the three competing Blunkett stories
might have somehow split the vote.

The story encapsulates all
that is difficult about judging the British Press Awards. How do you
judge a story about a disgraced holder of high public office against
the peccadilloes of one of the world’s most famous celebrities?

How,
as the editor of The Guardian put it to me, do you judge tabloid apples
against broadsheet (or compact, or Berliner) pears? How do you prevent
judges voting on ‘tribal’ lines, either to back their stablemates or
scupper their arch-rivals?

The exchange between Dacre and Lawson
turned out to be a significant portent. The Mail and Telegraph are the
two groups which have not committed to supporting the awards this year.

The Express Group has not taken part since it was bought by Richard Desmond in 2000.

There
were other concerns expressed by the editors: the ceremony itself, they
felt, was not the celebration of great journalism that it should be:
far from showing the industry at its best, it simply succeeded in
showing us at our worst. And at our worse for wear.

They also
felt that the commercialisation of the event had reached unacceptable
levels, with too many sponsors being given too much prominence.

A
lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, not least the sale
of Press Gazette to Matthew Freud and Piers Morgan. I went to see every
editor to hear their concerns directly.

Our own plans are encapsulated in the box-out (left).

We want to reboot the awards. To return them to their original purpose.

To
make them a showcase – rather than a boxing ring – for the best, most
competitive, most influential newspaper industry in the world.

Although
I understand their reservations remain about the issues above, I have
also heard the suggestion that, because Press Gazette is partly owned
by a PR man, Matthew Freud, he will somehow influence the selection of
winners.

I can only say that it is a groundless fear. I know for
certain that Charles Wilson, as experienced and fearless a chairman of
the judges as you could hope to find, will not allow him – nor any
other shareholder – anywhere near the judging process. I will resign if
he does.

Press Gazette does benefit from a successful British
Press Awards – although it has and will become far less dependent on
revenue from the event.

But I would argue that the industry
benefits too, from an independent and credible event that allows the
industry to promote itself to a wider audience, to celebrate its
diversity, its achievements and the excellence of its journalists –
from red-top and ‘serious’ titles – that the public often fails to
fully appreciate.

BACKGROUND FACTS, FIGURES AND PEOPLE

PEOPLE:
Fran Barlow, a former director of the Guardian Edinburgh Television
Festival, is joining us as events director. She’ll be consulting Amanda
Berry, Bafta’s chief executive and now a non-exec director of Press
Gazette. Charles Wilson and Pat Pilton of the Press Association are
chair and deputy chair of the judges.

THE JUDGING:
A grand jury of senior executives from each newspaper group will
oversee the process, which involves pool judges from every national
newspaper plus a large number of independent judges. More judges will
be involved at each step than ever before. The national newspaper
category will be judged using an academy-style system – which means a
larger number of independent judges will vote.

THE CATEGORIES: There are fewer categories: 21 down from 28. No category is sponsored.

THE EVENT: The ceremony takes place at the Dorchester on 20 March. There will be 450 guests, compared to nearly 1,000 that attended last year’s event.

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