I’m obviously going to be pilloried for suggesting that most awards for journalism are embarrassingly narcissistic, but what’s the point of writing for The Media unless you’re going to upset people? I will be accused of being envious and bitter, which I shall obviously deny…however unconvincingly. In fact, I was once a finalist in the Mondi awards for a brilliant piece I wrote on opera for the late, lamented Style magazine. I narrowly missed winning the award, but I did get a beautifully framed certificate which I didn’t display in my guest toilet. Who wants to brag about coming second?
However, it wasn’t this that made me suspicious of journalism awards. My near miss at winning an award was all down to my editor entering my work on my behalf. But, in most instances, it’s the journalist who has to enter his/her own work and that seems rather naff. I don’t know what happens these days, but I recall that in the dim and distant past all entries had to be mounted on cardboard and sent in by a certain date with full personal details and an accompanying form that asked stupid questions like “what motivated you to write this piece?”
Of course the politically correct answer to such a damn fool question (and the one that guarantees that you become a finalist) is to blather on about how you were so moved when you visited a hospital for Aids orphans that you just had to delve deeper into the story behind the story. The truthful answer of course is MONEY, which is what I wrote on my personal detail form and was probably the reason the opera piece didn’t carry away the evening’s glittering prize. The judges obviously didn’t go for my mercenary approach to journalism.
I’ve always been of the opinion that the whole point of writing is to try and please your readership. In the 14 years that it ran in the Sunday Times, I think the Out to Lunch column did just that every week. So I really couldn’t see the point of entering examples of the column in a competition to be judged by people who would almost certainly have a rather different political alignment to me. I also used to look through the list of judges for these journalistic beauty pageants and came to the conclusion that the majority were painfully politically correct, totally lacking in humour and rather shaky on the uses of irony in writing. As we saw from the comments following the ’Bogus journalism degree‘ piece I wrote for The Media, media academics do have very thin skins.
Having said that, I find that my attitude to journalism awards has mellowed as I have grown older, richer and wiser. Ten years ago it was possible to make a fortune from column writing and allied activities and the derisory amount of money that came with a Mondi award would have bought a couple of rounds of celebratory drinks at Katzy’s cigar lounge. These days, with so many opinionstas and columnists manqué around, that is no longer the case. In the old days, everybody knew who the crowd pleasers were because you didn’t hang on to a column in a newspaper week in and week out unless the reader figures justified it.
That’s no longer the case and we now have plenty of people writing for free. In short, the market is over supplied with scribblers and perhaps the only way to get any recognition (and a small amount of beer money) is to paste several examples of your work on to a piece of cardboard and send them off in the hope of winning an award and becoming recognised.
But recognised by whom? The reading public have very little interest in whether or not a journalist is award winning or not, so the only possible reason for wanting to garner a gong is to stick it to fellow scribes who didn’t manage to do so. Who knows… it may well be that this sort of thing does wonders for the low self esteem of journos who now earn a pittance and get little thanks for what they do. If that is the case, then the journalism awards have performed a useful function.
And if you believe all that crap about them encouraging and rewarding excellence in journalism, then good for you. I just happen to think that they would be much more credible if the reader both nominated and judged the entries. That would be the real test of excellence in my book.
This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of The Media magazine.