ABC journalist Quentin Dempster receives a standing ovation at last night’s Walkleys. Photo via @Walkleys

What Crikey would have given to be seated opposite Mark Scott last night.

As the room settled in to another year of celebrating journalism’s best and finest, Walkleys host Sarah Ferguson started with the gags. But after a few easy targets, she homed in on something that was, as she put it, “not very funny”. She said she just couldn’t do it, especially when so many of her colleagues were in “shark pools” waiting to find out if they’d have a job at Christmas. She continued:

“Yesterday, I was at the Walkleys Storyology conference when the head of ABC digital, inspired no doubt by the presence of his digital idol the head of BuzzFeed, referred to television and to radio at the ABC as a ‘legacy’ that needed to be ‘dealt with’. It’s an interesting word — legacy, I think. You know that legacy is the word that Qantas uses to describe all those bits of the airline that aren’t Jetstar. The way I look at it, ‘legacy’ is what my fast-departing colleagues, with their years of broadcast experience, leave behind for those of us who still hold fast to the idea that the journalism we do on radio and on television is important.”

“These days of course they call it ‘content’. You imagine what the digital future would look like without it.”

We couldn’t believe our ears. Had Ferguson just compared her boss to Alan Joyce? The night kicked on (more on that later), but Crikey tracked down Mark Scott to ask him what he thought of Ferguson’s comments. Had he heard them, as we had, as a scathing indictment? “No, not at all,” he said. “When you lose 400 people, it’s going to have a big impact.” On whether Ferguson and others were right to fear the prioritisation of digital within the organisation, Scott said he respected that was the view of some within the ABC, but it was necessary to meet the budget cuts while preparing for the future.

Among the crowd, many ABC journalists remarked to Crikey that morale at the organisation had fallen through the floor. As one insider mused, no strike of ABC staff is planned, but in the powder keg that is the ABC’s newsrooms at the moment, anything could set the journalists off. It was telling that Walkleys advisory board chairman Quentin Dempster, the veteran journalist and 7.30 NSW host fired by ABC News boss Kate Torney two weeks ago, elicited a long standing ovation rivalled only by that to honour Peter Greste. Dempster has fought ABC management as hard as he can on Scott’s new vision for the ABC, seen to prioritise mobile and digital investment.

But enough of that. Let’s get to the awards themselves.

The ABC had a hand in 12 awards, Fairfax eight and News Corp seven (the full list of winners is here). The ABC benefited from numerous Four Corners joint investigations with print journalists, while Fairfax had a better night than expected, carving out solid areas of dominance in international coverage and business journalism. News Corp’s early lead didn’t hold — in the end the gongs were fairly evenly spread out.

It was a good year for The Guardian, which won two Walkleys, including one for the Indonesian phone-hacking story (shared with the ABC). The Guardian‘s Paul Daley also took out an award for best indigenous reporting — historically an area of strength for The Australian.

Sky News had its first ever Walkley — for David Speers’ “what is metadata?” interview with George Brandis. In the headline-writing category, Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker triumphed.

Fairfax scribe Adele Ferguson was nominated for four awards (in three categories), and it was widely expected she’d take out a few gongs for her dogged investigation of the financial planning industry. She ended up winning the Gold Walkley, along with Four Corners’ Deb Masters and Mario Christodoulou. Ferguson used her speech to thank the whistleblower who took such a huge risk to bring the story into the open, and to thank politicians (John Williams and Sam Dastyari) who she said had withstood intense lobbying from the big banks to chase the issue through Parliament. She didn’t use her speech to make any points about journalism, as past Walkley winners have tended to do. Masters, when she came to the podium, paid tribute to Four Corners’ executive producer, Sue Spencer, who is retiring next year after seven years at Four Corners.

By this point of the night, it was very late. But as befits a room full of increasingly drunk journos, the party continued at The Waterside on Darling Harbour, with journalists spilling out onto the veranda outside for a chance to smoke and talk. Inside, the music was decidedly catered to a crowd who came of age in the 1980s. Paul Howes, there because his wife works at event sponsor Qantas, was an early and enthusiastic convert to the dance floor, but he left after an hour or two. Your correspondent had ambitions of staying out with the stragglers but went home at 2.30am barely able to keep her eyes open. Presumably the party kicked on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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