Not for the first time, the integrity of the judging process of Australian journalism’s highest honours, the Walkley awards, has been called into question.

At this year’s awards in Melbourne on Thursday, Walkley Foundation chair Kate McClymont said one of the best things about the awards was their integrity, ensured by the rigorous, two-step judging process.

But almost as soon as the winners were announced, it was whispered among some of the attendees that the sports journalism gong hadn’t gone to the person the judges expected. Broadcaster Derryn Hinch tweeted as much. “Who picks [the] Walkleys?”, he asked. By Monday, the Oz had reported that the judges — the Oz’s Nicole Jeffery, Nine’s Tony Jones and Ten’s Stephen Quartermain — “unanimously” decided to give the award to the Four Corners team for their investigation into the greyhound racing industry, Making a Killing. But the award went instead to The Courier-Mail’s Chris Garry, for his pieces on a spate of suicides among young NRL players (it’s worth noting there can be no allegation of bias here — three judges from commercial outlets argued the ABC should have won an award, even though the winner came from the same organisation as one of the judges). Four Corners’ greyhound piece would go on to win the Best Investigation Walkley and the Gold Walkley. The Oz reports that the committee’s decision to overrule the judges didn’t go down well.

How could this happen? It’s far from the first time. One doesn’t have to call too many former judges to hear stories of strongly recommended finalists who cruelly missed out on the award on the night. While judges have the ability to pick finalists and recommend a winner, they don’t formally pick the final winner of their category. Like the American Pulitzer Prizes, on which they are modelled, the Walkley awards operate on a two-step judging process, and have since 1997. Unpaid judges get two weeks to pore over dozens of entries in their category, and have to reach a unanimous decision on the top three. They have to explain their reasoning in doing so. They can also make a recommendation on the winner, but this is optional and not all judges do so.

The 12-person Walkley advisory board — headed by Fairfax’s McClymont and including journos and media execs like the ABC’s Fran Kelly, Sky News’ Angelos Frangopoulos, Fairfax’s Anne Davis, the Tele‘s Claire Harvey, Bauer’s Marina Go and the Oz’s Hedley Thomas — then meets, and over one very long day picks winners from the finalists.

Key to the Walkley Advisory Board’s process is a consideration of whether or not a piece best fits the criteria for the award. The board doesn’t look at the category judges’ recommendations until it has made its decision, but if the recommendations differ, the board discusses the issue once more.

Crikey asked why the Walkley board had differed from the sports journalism judges, but was told the board’s decision-making was confidential. But the Walkley Foundation general manager Louisa Graham stressed that “whilst first-round judges can make a recommendation to the board it is a recommendation only”. She also said the two-stage judging process had been reviewed in 2013, and the industry “overwhelming … endorsed the two-tier judging process”.

The subject has come up in multiple reviews over the years. In 2008, previous Walkley Foundation chair Quentin Dempster defended the current system:

“To give the initial panels the task of choosing the winner would result in concentrating the decision in just three people, some of whom may never have judged Walkley Awards before. The current system allows the initial panel to choose finalists and make recommendations if they wish. The decision is then reviewed by the [Walkley Advisory Board] ensuring that the award is effectively judged by more than 10 people with wide experience.”

But criticisms have been persistent over the years. The 2013 review found the concerns of initial judges who felt there was a clear winner and were then disappointed when another nominee got the gong was one of the main sources of criticisms of the current process. Some submissions cited a lack of transparency around the reasoning of the board in overturning the initial judges’ decisions. One submission stated that giving the board final say over the winners was “fundamentally wrong and must be reversed” because it led to the inevitable perception that “outcomes are being managed and massaged”, not on the basis of merit but to share the prizes around. Nonetheless, the review also found 90% of Walkleys judges surveyed were happy with the final outcome, and the review recommended the current two-step judging be retained.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey