An American Perspective on the British Press

Those Daft British Press Awards
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 16 2005 12:14 PM

An American Perspective on the British Press

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"Are you enjoying yourself?" I asked a tabloid editor at the British Press Awards last night. Sweat blossoming across his face, his table strewn with empty bottles of wine, he had to think for a moment before answering.   

"Not fantastically," he said, "because we never win." He said that "never," in his particular case, meant something like 15 years.

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I asked him three more questions that I can't recall, but my notebook reveals that he answered "no" to all of them, before saying, "I don't really want to say anything."

It is never easy to interview British journalists—they appear to mistrust the American habit of taking notes—but the scene at the awards ceremony last night made any serious attempt at conversation particularly difficult, given the din, the crush of bodies, the growing obnoxiousness of the crowd, and the feeling that many of the people in the room actively despised each other (and possibly me).  

More than 900 journalists, all in black-tie, were crammed into a ballroom at the Hilton; they represented everything from the scrappiest, most sex-obsessed tabloid to the snootiest, worthiest broadsheet. So little did they have in common that it was like holding an awards ceremony for the entire animal kingdom, pitting carnivores against herbivores, fish against amoebas.

The British Press Awards have been called "the Academy Awards of British journalism," Britain's answer to the Pulitzers. But last night's ceremony—a mind-numbing parade of awards in 28 categories—was not a mutually respectful celebration of the British newspaper industry fueled by camaraderie and bonhomie. It was more like a soccer match attended by a club of misanthropic inebriates.

The losers were not happy for the winners. "What's he ever fucking reported, except what fucking Alastair Campbell told him?" a man sitting at a nearby table muttered when Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun was named Reporter of the Year (Campbell is Tony Blair's former chief spokesman). The rule seemed to be that you were allowed to cheer only for awards won by a) someone at your own paper; or b) someone at a paper owned by your proprietor (e.g., Rupert Murdoch). Otherwise, the etiquette was either to mutter disapprovingly or to drown out the winner's acceptance speech by chattering as raucously as possible.

The winners were not gracious in victory. Early in the evening, Sir Bob Geldof came to the stage to praise the Sun, which won a prize for its campaign to raise money for Africa. First he bragged inappropriately about the size of his penis. "I've just been down at the bog," he said ("bog" being "bathroom"), "and it's true that rock stars do have bigger knobs than journalists." He then called a recent Daily Mail story "a disgrace" and began a disastrously misjudged—given that he was speaking to British journalists—discussion of the forthcoming G-8 meeting. 

Someone heckled him. "Do you even know what it is, you twat?" Geldof responded, referring to the G-8. "You'll have a Clarkson moment in a fucking minute." (Jeremy Clarkson, a TV celebrity and perennial Motoring Writer of the Year nominee, meaning that he writes about cars, is known for an incident at the last year's awards in which he is said to have called Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, a "fucking cunt" and then physically attacked him.)

The evening wore on. The mood became increasingly feral. Soon the Sun and the News of the World, the Murdoch-owned tabloids, were supporting their winners with raucous standing ovations designed to intimidate their broadsheet rivals. Some of the winners from other papers looked terrified, snatching their statuettes and all but running off the stage to reduce their chances of being exposed to the mob. Of the four nominees at my table, one was awarded the Travel Writer of the Year award ("Whee-hee!" he called, endearingly, from the stage); one lost out on the Reporter of the Year prize; and two others failed to win the Food and Drink Writer of the Year award. Luckily, a waiter deposited three bottles of champagne on our table just as their names were not being announced.

In a surprising break with tradition, Jeremy Clarkson won the motoring award. His acceptance speech was short: "Piers Morgan is an arsehole," he said, and then went away. When Simon Walters of the Mailon Sunday won the prize for Political Journalist of the Year, he used the occasion to rehearse an old grievance against Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor and the evening's thankless master of ceremonies.

The final award was for Newspaper of the Year, a prize that has proved to be somewhat controversial in the past. In 1999, when the Guardian won it, Neil Wallis, the editor of the Sunday People tabloid, stormed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone from the master of ceremonies, and said he found it a "shocking disgrace" that the judges thought the broadsheets were better than the tabloids.

If that used to be true, that is no longer the case. Fifteen of the awards last night were won by tabloid papers; Newspaper of the Year went to the News of the World. Called "News of the Screws" in Private Eye magazine on account of its obsession with who is sleeping with whom, the paper had an unusually successful 2004, breaking stories about a married woman's affair with the unmarried home secretary, and about an unmarried woman's affair with David Beckham (who is married to Posh Spice). Such stories made it, in the eyes of the judges, a better newspaper than, say, the Independent, which has carved a niche for itself this year as a left-leaning crusader against the war in Iraq.

The British Press Awards allow the papers that win them the opportunity to indulge in 12-monthlong victory laps. For the rest of the year, the News of the World will be able to write "Newspaper of the Year" across its front page; Jeremy Clarkson will be able to call himself "Motoring Writer of the Year." But how important are they, in the scheme of things?

"It's all shite," a woman at my table informed me, "until you win something, and then it's just a well-deserved recognition of talent."

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.

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