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Comment awards organisers defend nomination of Times columnists after nominees and judge withdraw

An annual awards event has been forced to defend its choice of nominees after a backlash against the inclusion of two Times columnists from fellow journalists.

The Editorial Intelligence UK Comment Awards released a statement on Friday after Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge and columnist Nesrine Malik announced they were withdrawing from the Society and Diversity category shortlist.

Younge and Malik, who won the award last year, said they had withdrawn due to the presence of Times columnist Melanie Phillips (pictured).

The inclusion of fellow Times columnist Janice Turner in the Commentator of the Year category has also faced backlash.

The award organisers hit back, citing George Orwell and freedom of expression, and saying judges are asked to consider the quality of journalists’ work in a particular year, “not their body of writing overall, and not their personality”.

In May a Times column by Phillips called Islamophobia a “fiction” used to “shut down debate”. She also criticised the #MeToo movement this year.

Younge and Malik said in a statement: “…we would like to draw a clear distinction between those viewpoints with which we disagree and those which we fundamentally object to on account of their bigotry and divisiveness. We believe that Phillips’s body of work falls among the latter.

“Given her record, shortlisting Phillips not only makes a mockery of the category by devaluing the principles of inclusion and diversity themselves, it also legitimises her offensive attacks on immigrants in general and Muslims in particular.

“To nominate a columnist who holds such views undermines the integrity of the award itself and so we would rather distance ourselves from it.”

Younge and Malik have been supported by journalists including former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Guardian columnist Owen Jones and Open Democracy journalist Sunny Hundal.

In a statement released on Friday, the Comment Awards organisers said: “Editorial Intelligence, which puts on the Comment Awards, believes in freedom of expression and in George Orwell’s view that ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

“Melanie Phillips was eligible to be nominated, and she was judged fairly. The Comment Awards are a platform to celebrate, as awards do, excellence in a particular field. We strive for balance in our judging panels, with a diversity of age, gender, race, and political perspective.”

The organisers added that none of the pieces by Phillips which Younge and Malik had criticised were published within the qualifying time window for the 2018 awards and neither were for the Times, the publication for which she is nominated.

“The Comment Awards have no plans to change the fundamental cornerstone that we invite judges to judge the quality of a journalist’s commentary in a particular year,” the organisers said.

“Not their body of writing overall, and not their personality.”

Times columnists Jenni Russell and Sathnam Sanghera were also nominated in the same category.

On Saturday Helen Belcher, a Trans Media Watch co-founder who judged the shortlist, asked for her name to be removed due to the nomination of Times columnist Janice Turner.

Turner has criticised the imprisonment of male-born trans inmates with female prisoners, and written numerous pieces about the consultation over reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act which closes this week.

The Comment Awards organisers have spoken out in defence of Turner, tweeting: “We are crystal clear on our commitment to celebrate a true diversity of opinion, writers, and to freedom of the press.”

The Times has declined to comment.

Picture: BBC Question Time

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