The trustees of the Kennedy Foundation have expressed their “deep regret and sincere apologies” after presenting Guardian Australia photography editor Mike Bowers with an award last Friday night that the judges had intended to go to Sydney Morning Herald photographer Nic Walker.

The award had Bower’s name engraved on it and so was presented to Bowers on the evening. In an email to Guardian editor-in-chief Emily Wilson, Kennedy Foundation chairman Peter Ryan explains:

“This unfortunate error came as a result of the last minute engraving of winners’ names on the Kennedy Award trophies. The ‘engraver’s list’ was created by deleting the names of those finalists who did not win.

“When Friday’s presentation went to the winner’s video package for Online Photographic Essay it was immediately apparent that the wrong name had been sent to the engravers.”

In order to spare Bowers any on-stage embarrassment it was decided to allow him to claim the award, presented for a photographic essay he did on the Gallipoli landings. A video that would have aired showing Walker’s winning photographs was hastily stopped “to minimise embarrassment for all concerned,” according to a statement released this morning by the Kennedy Foundation.

The Guardian was not informed of the error until Wednesday, when one of the judges called Bowers. It appears attempts were made to contact Bowers earlier in the week, but emails were sent to his now-defunct address at previous employer, The Global Mail. Walker, along with Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir, were informed of the mix-up before Bowers was told. Ryan’s letter states both were keen to spare The Guardian and Bowers “any embarrassment given his wide respect in the media industry”. An unbylined article in The Sydney Morning Herald listing the winners did quietly include and link to Walker’s winning entry, which is a photo essay on schoolies week in Bali.

The Guardian pushed the scandal into the open this morning by publishing an article on the mix-up. Crikey understands the publication felt it had to, as it had published an earlier article telling its readers about Bowers’ win on Saturday. It’s not clear the issue would have come to light at all if not for the Guardian piece — the Kennedys only issued a statement after The Guardian had revealed the news.

Speaking to The Guardian Australia’s media reporter Amanda Meade, a furious Bowers said he would not be entering the awards again. “A mistake was made, fair enough, however the organisers showed zero duty of care, waiting five days to contact me and tell both myself and the Guardian about the mistake … Let’s face it, it was a clanger, I would have thought a phone call on Saturday would not have been out of the question?”

“I have lost faith in the process and the people who run it,” Bowers added. “It’s a shame, I worked very closely with Les Kennedy whose name is on those awards, and I don’t think he would be very impressed.”

Wilson was also unimpressed. “Our journalists’ contact details are all posted prominently on our website,” she told Meade. “I’m very disappointed for Mike, who is a wonderful photographer and who did such amazing and very personal work in Gallipoli this year. However I would like to join him in congratulating Nicholas Walker, who deserves to feel very proud of his win even if the awarding of it was horribly bungled.”

The Kennedy Awards are only three years old, having been started by friends of legendary Sydney crime reporter Les Kennedy, who died of cancer in 2011. In his email to Wilson, Ryan, who is also the ABC’s AM business editor, said the Kennedy Awards were a largely volunteer organisation. “We have one full-time staff member compared to the staffing of the Walkley Foundation and the Melbourne Press Club,” he said. “Since 2012 we have presented more than 140 awards without a hitch despite our limited resources.”

“We resolved to investigate the issue after the awards presentation concluded and are now tightening up administrative procedures to ensure such a mistake is never repeated.”

On Monday, Crikey reported that the ABC had, at a late stage, pulled out of sponsoring the awards, which the Kennedy Awards committee confirmed in a letter to Crikey on Wednesday. “A tighter budget prevented the ABC from renewing its category sponsorship for this year’s awards, but we enjoy a great relationship with the national broadcaster and appreciate its strong support.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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