Men behaving less badly

There is probably only one thing worse than being up for an award and not winning it, and that is hosting a table of staff determined to enjoy the event by consuming copious amounts of booze and loudly heckling the speaker and rival hacks.

I’ve been in both positions several times and came to dread the gilt-edged invitation to any such event.

So it was great to be asked to Press Gazette’s British Press Awards as a guest – no responsibility and definitely no possibility of missing out on a gong.

It was also an event I had never attended before but had read much about. I was looking forward to a ringside seat to see all those national newspaper journalists at their worst.

But how disappointing. Where were the outlandish behaviour, the tears, the tantrums, the egos, etc? Apart from the well-documented skirmish between Piers and Jeremy (which I managed to miss), I’ve seen worse behaviour at a public school headmistresses’ convention.

Very few award winners took the opportunity to say outrageous things into the microphone, and when they did, it was to briefly and soberly thank their bosses, colleagues… and their wives! (This was a very maledominated winners’ scroll.) Admittedly, the tabloid tables made much more noise when they were nominated or won but then politely stood up and clapped before sliding back gracefully and quietly into their seats.

The only person who got anything like a hard time was a very earnest young man from the Telegraph who was vaguely heckled while trying to explain why they had won Team of the Year. He made the fatal mistake of looking startled by the boos of the losers in the room and stopped midflow, rather than putting his head down and ploughing on.

But it was hardly a scene from a Brian De Palma movie.

So what am I to make of this? Either the national journalists have completely smartened up their act at such do’s or they have always been this well behaved and there has been some sort of conspiracy to maintain their hard reputation.

I mean, did anyone actually see the Morgan-Clarkson scrap? I think the rest of the media have a right to know… One of the roles of a columnist is to provoke debate, reaction and even fury.

Indeed, some columnists are employed specifically for that reason – and lively letters pages can bear out the success of this approach.

When I first started writing this column 15 months ago, I decided not to model myself on the Richard Littlejohn/Julie Burchill school of columnists, but I still expected to cause the odd wave occasionally.Up until now, I am ashamed to admit, it has been fairly quiet. Apart from a few letters of agreement, which are nice for the ego but hardly going to make me a contender for the controversial columnist of the year award, the main criticism has been about my photo (a cross between Miss Whiplash and Rupert the Bear was one of the kinder comments).

So it was bound to happen that one day I would ruffle a few feathers with my prose rather than my dress sense.

That day came with my piece about editor Rachael Campey and the Yorkshire Post, which has got the NUJ very hot under the collar.

In an extremely long letter (Press Gazette, 19 March), I am accused by Peter Lazenby and Peter Johnson, joint FoCs at Yorkshire Post Newspapers, of being the worst sort of columnist – passing off supposition and opinion as fact, lacking in diligence, rambling, blah blah blah.

To be fair, while throwing the kitchen sink at me, they could have got really personal and mentioned the picture but managed to contain themselves, which I think is to their credit.

No tantrums: Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson at the BPAs

As a former member of the Press Complaints Commission, I do take complaints very seriously. As you can see, I have considered this very quickly and below is my personal adjudication which I am printing prominently in my column right now.

I am taken to task for describing the YP as under-performing in circulation terms, although the Two Peters do kindly concede that the paper has its circulation problems. I think that comes under the spot-the-difference category. In fact using the word “problem”, as they do, arguably puts a worse spin on it.

I am also accused of implying that this circulation performance is the fault of the women’s editor, whose post was being disbanded and which started off the whole sorry episode.

Jill Armstrong must have felt extremely beleaguered during this time but even she, in her worst moments of paranoia, cannot possibly have gleaned that I was holding her personally responsible for falling sales.

But what appears to have really rattled their cage (and that of regional rep Miles Barter in his much shorter letter) was my comment that few people turn up to meetings but can still vote on behalf of staff.

The Two Peters delivered some fairly meaty figures to show how well attended this particular meeting was, and I am glad I was able to give them the lengthy opportunity to answer my question on how representative it was.

But they do question my knowledge of NUJ gatherings, pointing to that well-worn accusation of my not being in the union.

Well of course I could fall into their trap and bleat back about my many years as a member. I could even add in my depressing and thankless stint as a branch treasurer, but I’m not stooping to that level of justification… And I concede this was many moons ago. So I will just use my recent experience on the other side of the fence when I (and most of the paid-up editorial team, in fact) did not attend NUJ meetings.

I used all my investigative skill and journalistic guile (which we have already established is not held in much regard by the said Peters) to casually learn on occasions how many people had attended regular NUJ meetings.

And funnily enough, it was always about five.

Admittedly I have not taken any interest in this issue for the past 18 months, so if during that time NUJ branch meetings up and down the land have been filled to the rafters with normal staff rather than a few activists, then I stand corrected.

All of this should not detract from last month’s column’s central argument – that it is draconian to decide to put forward and vote on a motion of no confidence in an editor who wants to lose one post rather than decimate a newsroom.

I may have rambled but it is a fact that I still stand by that opinion. 

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle.

E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Janice Turner

by Alison Hastings

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