An awarding experience

Almost four years ago my first Medialand – title courtesy of Alastair Campbell -observed that “brilliant journalists, illiterates, number crunchers, self-publicists, recluses, rogues, vagabonds, pedants and philanthropists have all had their hands around the throats of the world’s great newspapers”.

I was referring particularly to proprietors, but the classifications used can apply to those working in most areas of the media — and, indeed, many of them, from the truly brilliant, to the seriously roguish and incorrigibly pedantic, have been parading through these columns ever since.

Reviewing the highs and the lows of journalistic life chronicled in pieces that leapt, jogged or stumbled on to this page once every month, I am struck by the extraordinary perspicacity of some of those who helped provide a total of more than 50,000 words. I am struck also by others who proved to be about as perspicacious as the Royal Household when Ryan Parry turned up carrying a footman suit and a camera.

So, lest they be forgotten, I bow out of this space with my own set of Medialand awards for services rendered to journalism, and to me, by the great, the good and the “sorry, what was your name again?” during hostilities.

(Having, in this column’s new home, The Independent, made observations about the British Press Awards that did not endear me to some of my friends at Press Gazette, I should perhaps point out here that I am not setting up in competition with that illustrious event.) The Medialand award for Most Astute Proprietor goes to Lord Hollick, who in September 2000 assured editor-in-chief Rosie Boycott that he had no intention of selling his national titles and that he would be investing seriously in both Expresses.

Two months later Hollick sold out to Richard Desmond. Astute? Most certainly – somehow Hollick, whose gesture in paying considerable bonuses to some of the staff he left behind hardly compensated for the lack of editorial investment during his tenure, retained the group’s highly valuable 18 per cent stake in the Press Association in the Desmond deal.

Medialand’s far-from-coveted Snob Award goes to Sir Max Hastings, a vastly talented man but one who occupies a position in life so rarefied that the rest of us are left with our noses pressed against its window panes. “I don’t know of one majorleague editor at the moment who doesn’t have a country house,” said Hastings in an interview early in 2002.

And the following year he commented that an “uncouth” Alastair Campbell “would never drink tea out of a cup when a mug was available”.

All those without a second home in the country and who slurp tea from a mug – cracked, no doubt – now know their place.

Seers and sages by the score have given Medialand the benefit of their wisdom, so there were many contenders – step forward Andrew Neil, several times – for the award for the most notable prophet. But my old friend Roy Greenslade edges home with, two years ago, “I have come to believe… that neither The Independent nor The Independent on Sunday can be revived”, a sentiment of which Simon Kelner was happy to remind the audience when collecting the Newspaper of the Year plaque at the Hilton.

There were several challengers, too, for the title of Medialand’s fifth columnist. Mary Ann Sieghart’s continual broadsides against the tabloids earns her a dishonourable mention, but the prize goes to journalist Anthony Brown, who in the summer of 2002 charged the press with piousness and hypocrisy, writing in the New Statesman: “Journalists are the nation’s anti-corruption squad, but there is no one to investigate our own corruption.

All the public can rely upon is our integrity and sense of fair play. They are being let down.” Sadly, events since show that they still are.

The Shock! Horror! Award, the natural province of the redtops, goes not to the News of the World but to The Guardian, for boldly charging in where racy tabloids fear to tread. In May of last year, Gillian Wearing’s artistic cover for the newspaper’s G2 section, “Fuck Cilla Black”, drew an angry response from hundreds of readers.

It was, as I remarked at the time, an editorial fuck-up of major proportions.

Has the subsequent furore calmed down the paper where a determination to be cool sometimes overwhelms common sense? Probably not – am I the only one who thinks it displayed undue relish last week in reviewing the band, Selfish Cunt, and listing its “divertingly titled” songs, Britain is Shit and Fuck the Poor? Medialand’s great survivor has to be Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, who told me over lunch in April 2000 that his political career was “in abeyance”, then fretted: “But I could be out on my ear from journalism and might have to find some way of surviving.”

Election to the safe Conservative seat of Henley-on-Thames three months later and, subsequently, a burgeoning television career and the British Press Award for Columnist of the Year suggest that Johnson’s anxiety was misplaced.

Coming bang up to date, the bravura with which The Times announced its compact edition earlier this year was almost commendable, unless you happen to work for The Independent. The fact that the smallest kid on the block had beaten it to the punch was not one you might glean from The Times’s tub-thumping and put the paper in line for my Chutzpah Award. Alas for Robert Thomson, a late entry snatched the title away.

“An historic milestone in journalism is marked on Saturday when The Scotsman, Scotland’s leading quality newspaper for more than 187 years, offers a compact edition to its readers,” read the press release announcing that the Barclay brothers’ flagship title – so far – was downsizing. But only, it transpired, once a week.

Our Best of British Bruisers Award was difficult to call. Having left the Hilton on Park Lane before Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson’s press awards confrontation, I am in no position to judge whether they deserved Donald Trelford’s scornful description in The Independent – “handbags at two paces”. So, sticking to the devils I know, the more pugilistic members of The Observer’s editorial staff get the gong for twice having produced unseemly, but wholly admirable, skirmishes – one at an editorial conference, the other after a fellow journalist’s funeral.

Finally, the highest number of potential winners was, of course, in the category of Most Blatant Brown-nose. And the winner is… William Oddie, eminent editor of The Catholic Herald, in which Lord Black has a major interest. In a piece headed “Conrad was always bigger than any of his detractors”, Oddie last week described the beleaguered former Telegraph Group chairman as “this great and lovable man”.

Steady on, William. You may recall that Lyndon Baines Johnson once observed of a prospective employee: “I don’t want loyalty. I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells of roses.” But even Johnson didn’t expect such devotion to continue after he ceased to be President.

All in all, it is easy to sympathise with a member of the audience at a debate entitled “The trouble with this country is the Daily Mail” last year, who informed the panel of squabbling hacks: “Having heard all the speakers this evening, I am convinced that the trouble with this country is its newspapers.”

Only joking, colleagues. Honestly. 

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review and an Independent columnist

Next week: Alison Hastings


by Bill Hagerty

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