“Settle down, settle down. It’s nothing unusual, just another pissed journo.” So said Crikey founder and recent political candidate Stephen Mayne after being assaulted by News Limited political correspondent Glenn Milne at the Walkley Awards ceremony at Melbourne’s Crown Casino last night.

Mayne was on stage after presenting the award for business journalism when Milne burst on yelling: “You make things up. You are an absolute disgrace.” In full view of the television cameras and the hundreds of journalists present, Milne pushed Mayne to the ground.

Mayne got up, saying “Thanks buddy, thanks,” but Milne looked like having another go, breaking free from the stage manager who was trying to restrain him. Mayne jumped off the stage until Milne, still yelling, was escorted away.

It took a few minutes for it to sink in to the crowd that the assault had been real and not a stunt. Milne was ejected from the room while Mayne, showing some aplomb, continued with the awards as the reaction from the audience threatened to drown him out.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement to make on behalf of Rupert Murdoch. That is the former Sunday Telegraph political correspondent Glenn Milne, sponsored by Fosters,” he said, before trying to get the crowd to calm down.

Nothing gets journalists going like a story about journalists. Within minutes the foyer outside the function room was full of reporters on mobile telephones ringing the news through to colleagues and news desks all over the country.

Mayne told Crikey he would not press charges but that he expected an apology and regarded what Milne had done as a “sacking offence”. He said his ankle was “a bit jarred” but he was otherwise unhurt.

Journalists who had been with Milne before the assault said he had had “a couple of drinks” but had seemed composed until he saw Mayne on stage.

Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy, who had been sitting at the same table as Milne, said there was “a general feeling around the room” that Mayne was an inappropriate person to be involved in presenting a Walkley.

“He has made a living out of sh-t-canning journalists and this is meant to be a night about congratulating journalists… The worst thing about it is that it will further inflate what is already one of the most inflated egos in Australia,” he said.

Did Penberthy agree that Milne should be sacked? Mayne was being “precious and soft” to suggest it, said Penberthy.

“It is an industry that attracts characters and we should welcome that. Glenn is a great journalist and a good bloke. I don’t have any problem with Stephen Mayne either. He does what he does and we do what we do, but he shouldn’t be presenting Walkleys. It’s weird and inappropriate.”

But there were other unconventional presenters last night, as well as industry luminaries. Sir Les Patterson had earlier appeared on video pre-record, presenting the “Wankley” for coverage of the Asia-Pacific region. Mayne was surely a tame choice in comparison.

And some might remember that Penberthy hasn’t always been so tolerant of brain snaps and biffo.

Elsewhere in the room, senior News Limited executives were clearly shocked by Milne’s behaviour. One, speaking off the record, said: “It could finish him”.

Earlier in the night Milne was one of three shortlisted for the Print News Report award for his story on the Howard-Costello secret leadership deal, but the award was won by Michael Beach and Viva Goldner of The Daily Telegraph for their work on the Justice Marcus Einfeld story.

The assault was referred to a few times through the night. Mary Kostakidis, presenting the Gold Walkley, suggested that Milne should get an award for “the most spontaneous moment in media”. Meanwhile around the tables people were discussing little else.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that the incident will, among journalists at least, be remembered longer than who got which award.

The list of winners is the most eclectic for years, including several wins for The Daily Telegraph, and the first Walkley for a piece that initially appeared on a blog (Jack Marx’s extraordinary feature on Russell Crowe). There was also an award for best magazine feature for a piece by Chloe Hooper in Morry Schwartz’s independent magazine The Monthly. In short it was an inclusive night.

Michelle Grattan got the award for journalistic leadership, and was greeted with a standing ovation. Liz Jackson, Peter Cronau and Lin Buckfield of the ABC Four Corners team took out the Gold Walkley for their reporting from East Timor. The ABC dominated its categories, as is so often the case.

Find the complete list of winners here.