Whose fault is it if the world’s turned tabloid?

Rancour over rowdiness and the merit of the winners threatens to derail the British Press Awards. But who is calling the kettle black?

The advertising business knows all about rowdy awards ceremonies at posh hotels, but in recent years the Palme d’Or, Gold Lion and Black Pencil for bad behaviour have all gone to the British Press Awards – the beanfeast for national newspaper journalists.

This year’s bash, held last week, was no exception and it has proved the last straw for a dozen editors. On Friday, they issued an unprecedented joint statement, prompting headlines such as “Shame of the Press Awards”.

“The decline in the conduct and prestige of the British Press Awards has prompted a number of national newspaper editors to announce that they can no longer support this event in its present format,” they said.

“The editors of The Guardian, the Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday believe the organisation of these awards brings little credit to the industry or to the newspapers who win them.

“Discussions are now going on about what should happen in the future,” they concluded. The Evening Standard added its name later that day and the Financial Times and Mirror Group titles are expected to follow suit.

Persuading national newspaper editors to agree on anything is normally a forlorn task – as the eternal optimists at the Newspaper Marketing Agency could testify. So what happened to unite them on this occasion?

In short, three men: Band Aid founder Bob Geldof, television presenter and columnist Jeremy Clarkson and (in absentio) former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan.

The awards, held at the London Hilton, have become increasingly noisy and yobbish, as the tabloid teams’ tribalism has come to the fore. Journalists need little encouragement to drink and the presence of their rivals – and the naming of winners and losers – fans the flames.

In his new book, The Insider, Morgan gleefully describes his own antics at the event and advises any editor lucky enough to win the top prize to “Get up there, scream and shout, call your entire executive team up too for an on-stage conga, and don’t forget to taunt your sad-loser rivals with jeers such as ‘Still ain’t got no silverware’ and ‘You’re shit and you know you are.'”

Morgan, of course, was missing this year, but in case anyone had forgotten, the master of ceremonies – BBC political editor Andrew Marr – helpfully read out extracts from the book.

One related to Morgan’s punch-up last year with Clarkson. This year, Clarkson won an award and used the opportunity on stage to call Morgan an “arsehole”.

But Geldof was the real catalyst. Provocatively, he praised The Sun to the heavens for its “Band Aid 20” campaign for Africa, then – swearing liberally – attacked the Mirror, Mail and Independent for what he saw as failings in their coverage of Africa and Red Nose Day.

That was the last straw for several editors. Others were also unhappy about the choice of winners.

The Sun won five awards and the News of the World three, including Newspaper of the Year and Scoop of the Year. Perhaps not surprisingly, they – and the other News International titles, The Times and The Sunday Times, which picked up a further five awards between them – have not joined the editors’ protest.

The winning News of the World portfolio included three revelations of sex scandals: “Sven’s Secret Affair”, “Beckham’s Secret Affair”, and “Blunkett’s Affair with a Married Woman”.

Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers said: “This is celebrating showbusiness gossip and chequebook journalism. The whole thing has been going in a very tabloid direction for some time.” He said he would support any attempt to set up an alternative awards event: “I have not been for several years. The feral and infantile behaviour of many people there made me ashamed.”

The problem is that it’s not just the awards that have been moving in “a very tabloid direction”. It’s the media as a whole, and some would say politics too.

The News of the World’s three sex scandals dominated the media – including broadsheets, TV and radio – for weeks. Rightly or wrongly, the frenzy led to the resignations of the Home Secretary and the chief executive of the Football Association. Had other media not followed the stories up quite so enthusiastically, the outcomes might have been different.

Furthermore, the Morgan memoirs reveal just how far politicians and celebrities collude with tabloid editors in the hope of favourable coverage. Everyone from the Blairs to Paula Yates seems to have been phoning Morgan and his rivals, tipping them off and inviting them to breakfast, lunch and tea. He also gives chapter and verse on the way editors collude in their turn with middlemen such as Max Clifford, buying up the stories that now pick up the top awards.

Perhaps the British Press Awards reflect the state of the newspaper business all too faithfully.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News


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