The Melbourne Press Club is trying to usurp the MEAA’s Walkley Awards by pumping up their annual Quill awards but they’ve got a long way to go. Hugo Kelly reports.

He left home in the ’60s to discover the world in the great Aussie tradition of wandering minstrel journalism. Knightley’s latest book, Australia, is understandably an affectionate biography of his birthplace from cold, plague-ridden England.

And getting him as guest speaker at last Friday’s Quill awards, while on a promotional visit for the new book, was a nice coup by the Melbourne press club.

What would he make, then, of media awards in which half the prizes are judged by the public relations industry?

One particular influence peddler, the multinational PR firm Weber Shandwick (formerly IPR), has an iron grip on the Quills, the new and eager rival to the Walkleys as the nation’s premier journalism awards.

At the centre of the Quills takeover is Shandwick’s Australian chairman, former Age editor Mike Smith. He has used his position as press club committee man, buddy to club president, Neil Mitchell, and all-round Melburnian of influence, to stack the awards with his people.

Shandwick consultants were on judging panels for ten of this year’s 30 awards. Various other PR types were represented on five other panels. Mike Smith himself chaired four panels, his colleague, former ABC TV Washington Correspondent Peter Ryan, chaired three.

So let’s drop the pretence. These awards are not the Quills – they’re the Shandwicks.

Having dropped its old name – IPR – Shandwick is also cleverly trying to distance itself from the soiled “public relations” image. The global PR behemoth now describes itself as “reputation managers”.

And Shandwick boss Smith has been managing – for very fat fees – some pretty dodgy reputations.

Smith’s highest profile job has been feeding the media positive spin on the fugitive Mexican banker Carlos Cabal, who stowed away in Brighton a few years ago with millions of Pesos.

The Mexican authorities finally tracked him down and have lots of evidence to say Carlos is corrupt – and they want him back. He has hired Smith and a team of lawyers to keep him and his photogenic family as far away from justice as possible. For his troubles, Smith’s outfit has reportedly been collecting $80,000 a month.

Smith has set up a fun website worth checking out: It contains some great propaganda, including a pretentious little editorial from Mike Smith’s buddy, Neil Mitchell, about the need for justice in the Carlos case.

Aside from the Cabal production, Mike Smith’s also being paid to use the media to convince Australians that whales aren’t cute, harmless, endangered species – they’re a plague that needs to be slaughtered and eaten by our Japanese friends.

I wonder if anyone told Knightly who was really running the awards? Probably not Neil Mitchell, who doesn’t let his press club presidency stop him entering – and winning – his own awards.

Last year, Mitchell won a quill for his “exclusive” interview with the father of a girl who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. Who set up that interview? Mike Smith, acting on behalf of the family.

It’s a small media town, Melbourne, and deserves better than the PR boss and press club committee man feeding his mate, the press club president, an interview that goes on to win a press club award.

Has Mitchell no shame – or understanding of conflict of interest?

On the positive side, several hundred filled the Hyatt ballroom at $90 a pop for the award ceremonies. There is a demand for an alternative to the Walkleys, and the Quills’ problems don’t outweigh their potential.

The tone for the night was set by former Herald editor John Fitzgerald, who presented Hun hack Peter Game got a lifetime achievement award, and a fair roasting.

Fitzgerald treated us to a rundown of the glory days of the Herald in the 70s, when Melburnians religiously picked up a copy of the Last Race Extra before jumping on the Glen Iris tram for home, and the beating heart of the H&WT empire lay in the chief-of-staff’s safe – a few dollars petty cash beer money and a black tie speckled with chunder suitable for those formal occasions.

Back then, when lifestyle journalism consisted of cooking with Margaret Fulton and the technology section advised readers on how to lube up the Victa Mower, the young bucks on the up would vie for the shipping round.

The best things came by sea, including the young lady Phillip swept off the wharf and kept in his apartment, apparently for the enjoyment of sundry journalists. Or at least this was the drift of Fitzgerald’s rambling reminiscence.

When Knightly got to the podium he reeled out a couple of familiar yarns, including the one about his days at the Truth spent inventing – and helping capture – the notorious public transport pervert, The Hook. This tale gets better with age, and now sounds so apocryphal it’s probably true.

He gave a great speech a week earlier to launch the C.E.W Bean Foundation, drawing attention to Australian journalists’ record on the war front.

It was the Herald Sun’s night. Their people won 10 awards. Michael Harvey and Andrew Probyn won two, including the Gold Quill, for keeping the Peter Reith telecard story rolling.

Now, we sledged Michael last year as the “Costello candidate”, but on Friday he was kind enough to put bygones behind us and accept our handshake of congratulations.

Katrina Beikoff rightly won best sports story in any medium for her exclusive report on CJ Hunter’s positive Olympic drug test. It was a scoop that shook the Olympic world – not that the Hun news desk thought so at the time. Bizarrely, they ran it on page three.

We had a brief chat with Hun editor Peter Blunden before he ostentatiously turned his back on us after learning our Crikey connections. His former secretary, Anna, now his “companion”, had a few quiet words to us about the point in question: we ran a piece last year revealing their relationship. As I recall it, Stephen wrote the piece in response to the Hun leading the media charge to unveil in salacious detail Dick Pratt’s private affairs.

It seems to me that media types who object to their personal lives being aired had better be careful about how they use their own privileged positions to dissect the private lives of others. But confronted by Anna’s genuine distress, I had to admit it seemed a little harsh on her.

Not surprisingly, Peter Blunden was upbeat about his paper’s award winnings, and his own. Apparently he had a big win at Club Keno the previous night.

“230 to 1 it paid, two hundred and thirty to one!” he told anyone who’d listen. Well, they’re about the odds of Peter taking over from Michael Gawenda as Age editor.

Michael’s poor health (since disputed in a letter to Crikey) has cruelled his pitch and the word at the Shandwicks was that he will stand down gracefully inside the next two months, possibly to take up a writing role.

If he does stand aside, he will go down as a solid performer who, like Mike Smith, probably didn’t have long enough in the job to truly make his mark.

The question is whether new publisher Greg Hywood will seize the day and bring in an outsider and a cultural change at Spencer Street.

Another Age editor also missing on the night was Creighton Burns, who is also in poor health. Creighton, and fellow judges Jennifer Byrne and Eric Beecher, made a popular choice in awarding the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year to the Oz’s Darwin correspondent, Paul Toohey, for his series of reports on the devastating consequences of Aborigines sniffing glue in the Top End.

The Graham Perkin

Perkin, we were reminded, time and again throughout the night, was the superhuman Age editor who changed the face of Australia’s media and without whom we would be working in a barren industry dominated by matey nepotism and the public relations industry…

Perkin’s life is fast becoming a media fairy tale. This, from the quills program: “…until the night he died, not long after the first edition went to bed, he remained passionate about (the Age’s) history, its people…” etc, etc.

Another small point. The Perkin award is for newspaper and magazine journalists. How can the Perkin award be the “most prestigious annual recognition of journalistic excellence” when it excludes the electronic media – radio, TV, the internet…?

Press Freedom?

While most of the prize winners were not controversial, Crikey had to blow the whistle on one piece of pettifoggery.

The Grant Hattam award is “presented to the person who makes the greatest contribution to journalism or press freedom through courage and determination against the odds”. Peter Blunden, Mike Smith and Steve Price gave this prize to a lawyer, Adrian Anderson from Corrs, who is currently suing Crikey for defamation and attempting to have him punished for contempt of court for continuing to talk about Steve Price’s case.

Now this fellow, Anderson, the fearless defender of media freedom, is acting on behalf of …Steve Price!

How much “courage” does it take for a big city law firm to use Australia’s repressive defamation laws against a small independent outfit like Crikey? And how courageous of Judge Price to give the prize and the money to his own lawyer!

Mates, etc

Even some of the more deserved award winners were not necessarily clear-cut. For a start, there’s the David Wilson-Lindsay Murdoch connection. These blokes shared many a byline on the Age’s now defunct Insight team. Now Wilson’s working with his mentor, Mike Smith, at – you guessed it – Shandwicks. He was on the panel which awarded Murdoch the prize for best international or national report in any medium.

Hard-living Murdoch, who has been very much enjoying his postings in various South East Asian hot spots for the Age/SMH for some years now, won for award reporting on East Timor. Did David Wilson excuse himself from the selection process when his old mate was shortlisted? Of course he should have.

And then there were the awards that just went wrong. Jason South is a fine lensman who rightly won a Walkley last year for his outstanding photos from East Timor. But his winning feature photo, “Where’s the remote?”, is pretty derivative and – albeit unconsciously – a patronising whimsy.

Capturing two tribesman in a TV store, one holding his bow and arrow while peering at a screen, South’s photo belongs back in the old Australasian Post. Age old-timer John Lamb was the master of the “native-meets-white man’s magic” genre, which enjoyed its heyday in the 80s and should have stayed there. Lamb’s best pic of this type featured two Aborigines in traditional costume trying to figure out the wiles of a telephone booth planted out in the desert.

The winning entry reflects the world view of a veteran photographic judging panel. Former Hun pic ed Terry Phelan, revered ex-Age pic ed Ray Blackbourn, and retired Herald and News Ltd editor, Bruce Baskett, make this panel a little heavy on the nostalgia factor and light on contemporary ideas.

Age resident crimefighter John “Sly of the underworld” Silvester’s dad was a copper, and when he shuffled on stage to accept his award for best investigative report, looking every inch a detective sergeant from the armed robbery squad, the old man would have been chuffed.

Silvester and Age court reporter Steve Butcher won awards because they know their beat inside out. Butcher revealed the Melbourne magistrates’ uprising against their boss, Michael Adams, and Silvester won for his feature on police whistleblower Lachlan McCulloch.

The Quills suit the big papers because they always get a slice of the action and it’s an easy chest-thumping exercise. No wonder no-one’s rocking the boat about the PR infection.

And reading the papers on Saturday was no exception. The Quills were a triumph for the Age – in the Age. And the Hun scooped the pool – in the Hun. This “something for everyone” grab bag prize pool suits all main players…

At least the Age had the good grace to acknowledge the achievements of rival winners. The Hun whacked itself silly, filling page two with self-praise. Under the heading “We scoop the Quill awards”, it highlighted 22 staff who had won awards or received commendations. Didn’t even mention who won the Perkin award.

Then in its sports section, under the modest heading “We’re the best”, they went at it again: “Herald Sun sport scooped the pool at last night’s prestigious Quill awards…”

Now, we’re not impugning the integrity of the Quill judges. It may be that the PR types are perfectly capable of putting aside their hopelessly conflicted day jobs. It’s the perception that counts, and the perception is that if the Quills want to grow as a recognised arbiter of media excellence, they’ve got to lose their PR baggage.

Journalism awards should be characterised by independence and transparency. Let’s disclose the criteria for selecting judges. They should be chosen from a broad cross-section of the community, not a narrow section of the PR community.

So what are we going to do about it? For starters, Crikey plans to nominate for the press club committee. We’ve done some PR spinning in our time, so surely they’ll welcome us with open arms. Let’s give this thing a shake up from within.

Crikey, meanwhile, has awarded its own prizes for the night.

Dancing Queen:
A tie between ABC bella Giulia Baggio and Channel Ten “10” Mignon Henne.

Karaoke King:
Michael Harvey – never have the Bee Gees sounded so good.

Fight of the Night:
Lamentably, only one flare up. Channel Nine’s deputy news director Michael Venus pushed a well lubricated Seven news director Rob Olney after a bit of a verbal warm up.

Embarrassed silence of the Night:
The air was cool when Neil Mitchell collected another prize and cheque from the club he chairs.

Speech of the Night:
John Fitzgerald. A groovy 70s flashback. He deserves a cameo in the next Austin Powers movie.

Presenter of the Night:
Terri Bracks. Turned MC Ian Henderson into quivering putty just by stroking his trim new haircut.