Crikey editor Misha Ketchell writes:

Crikey was at Federation Square in Melbourne last night for the naming of the finalists for the highly-coveted Walkley awards. There was plenty of vino, legendary HeraldSun writer John Hamilton told some great stories about journalism in the ’60s, and Melbourne talkback host Neil Mitchell gave a speech admitting he hasn’t won a single Walkley in more than 36 years as a journalist. For the first thirty-something years he didn’t have an entry good enough, he said, but in recent times he’s had an even better excuse – he hadn’t entered because of his role as a judge.

His reticence is sensible given the way journalists love to get on their high horse when reporting even perceived conflicts of interest. But judging by the approach many of his colleagues take it’s also unnecessary. One of the reasons the awards are so coveted is that the judging panels are made up of working journalists, and in a bitchy and competitive game there’s no greater accolade than having your peers acknowledge you did a good job on a yarn. But in reality this also means some journos actually sit on the judging panel assessing their own entries into the awards.

Two examples that have been drawn to our attention include Lateline presenter Tony Jones serving as one of the three judges for the investigative journalism category in which a Lateline story was short-listed. Jones’s wife, Sunday reporter Sarah Ferguson, was also among the judges for the television current affairs category in which Lateline was short-listed.

Crikey understands that they both declared their conflicts of interest – and abstained from judging the entries where the conflict arose. But the question needs to be asked: is this system good enough?

Let’s be clear about this – this story is no way meant as an attack on Lateline or Tony Jones. The Lateline stories would undoubtedly both be worthy winners and we’ve plucked out these two examples only because they were brought to our attention by a tipster.

We haven’t had time to prepare a more comprehensive list of all the unusual situations that arise under the current judging system. (One example that comes to mind is when Anne Davies won the gold Walkley a couple of years ago while her husband, the SMH’s Tom Burton, was chair of the Walkley advisory board – he abstained from the vote.)

The question you’ve got to ask is not whether the current finalists are worthy, but whether they deserve to have their achievement tainted by the myriad conflicts that arise in the current judging system. Jane Worthington, deputy director of the Walkleys, told Crikey this morning that judges who have a conflict are obliged to inform their fellow judges of the conflict but it’s up to them as to whether they abstain from judging the relevant entries.

It’s hardly an iron clad rule that stamps out even the faintest whiff of conflict. And it has to be asked – even if judges abstain from voting on their own stories, is it appropriate for them to be on the panels at all when they have such a clear vested interest in the outcome?