Melbourne Press Club
Melbourne Press Club Quill awards ceremony.

In the wake of their excoriation by the royal commission, Australia’s banks have plenty of work to do in restoring their reputations. So it’s no real surprise that they might be interested in positive sponsorship opportunities.

One such opportunity is the Quill journalism awards from the Melbourne Press Club; an organisation whose president, Adele Ferguson, produced reporting that was instrumental in pushing for the royal commission.

For the past eight years, the widow of well-known Melbourne journalist David Wilson has been sponsoring the young journalist of the year award in his name. But a few weeks ago, Jo Nicholls was told that the Commonwealth Bank was offering more than she could for the award, and her money would be moved to another award.

Nicholls told Crikey she was incredibly upset about the change — she’d chosen to sponsor the young journalist award because her husband had a reputation for mentoring young journalists at The Age. As well as heading up the Insight investigations team, Wilson championed journalistic ethics, led The Age’s independent campaign while it was in receivership and helped draft Fairfax’s charter of editorial independence.

Press Club CEO Mark Baker told Crikey in a statement that the club had offered to shift Nicholls’ “limited” sponsorship of the young journalist award to the student award, which she declined. He said the award would not carry a sponsor at the upcoming awards in two weeks, but the club had been in discussions with sponsors about upgrading the award.

“The MPC welcomes sponsorship from Australian companies — including banks — willing to help fund our important programs supporting journalism and young journalists in particular,” he said. “Without such sponsorship we would not exist.”

Melbourne Press Club
Melbourne Press Club’s website, advertising an event about the royal commission.

Baker said the details of sponsorship negotiations and board deliberations were confidential, but the board had unanimously agreed to upgrade support for the young journalist of the year award.

Nicholls took up the sponsorship not long after Wilson died, and after Qantas had stopped sponsoring the same award. She’d written the award into her will, so the funding would continue after her death. “Once the Commonwealth Bank’s profile is back up, they’ll drop this and the press club will be searching around again for another sponsor,” she said. “It’s very short-sighted given I was doing this for life.”

It’s common for Australian journalism awards to be funded by corporate sponsors. Most often they are the media companies themselves, universities, and legal firms that specialise in media law.

Curtin University media law academic Joseph Fernandez told Crikey it was impractical to expect organisations like the Melbourne Press Club to reject outright funding opportunities, “especially in a cash-strapped media environment”. Events like awards evenings are expensive to put on, and it’s notoriously hard to get journalists to pay up for events and memberships.

Fernandez said one way organisers can make sure conflicts, either perceived or real, are kept to a minimum, is making sure the sponsors are separate to the judging process, as is the case with the Quills.

Another way, he said, was by “focusing on pursuing sponsorships from parties with philanthropic or non-partisan interests, and by avoiding sponsorships from entities with a tainted reputation”.

He said it was important for journalists to protect their credibility in the current media environment. “Journalists are in a better position than most people on setting a high bar for the sniff test because they do this as a job all the time,” he said. “Turning the test back on their own profession should not be hard.

“In an age where journalism is facing serious attacks from a variety of fronts on its very survival and its credibility, the profession faces unprecedented challenges in commanding public respect. The profession can ill afford to invite questions about being beholden to sponsors or somehow obligated to them.”

In the United States, which has a stronger tradition of philanthropy than Australia especially in the media, prominent media organisations such as The Washington PostThe New York Times, Reuters and Bloomberg all have strict codes of ethics that don’t allow journalists to accept awards sponsored or administered by companies that are likely to have an interest or stake in topics they report on. In Australia, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics is much more vague, simply requiring journalists to disclose conflicts of interest in their reporting.

Nicholls said that aside from any ethical concerns, she thought having an award in someone’s name had more significance to recipients than those from corporate sponsors. “If you’ve got awards named after people who are named after significant people in your industry, I would think that has more meaning than cheques from Qantas or CBA, because what do they have to do with journalism?” 

Full response from Mark Baker:

The Melbourne Press Club’s negotiations with potential sponsors — and the deliberations of our board — are confidential.

It is correct that the MPC has held discussions with a number of potential sponsors to upgrade support for the Young Journalist of the Year award and other programs. The Board of the MPC has been fully briefed and unanimously approved these negotiations. No agreements have been concluded regarding the Young Journalist award and this year’s award will carry no sponsorship support.

The Young Journalist award has received limited but appreciated financial support over a number of years from Jo Nicholls’ family trust in memory of her late husband, David Wilson, an investigative journalist who later worked in PR. There was never a formal agreement for this arrangement and no branding rights were included.

Jo Nicholls was briefed about our negotiations over future sponsorship of the Young Journalist award and was offered the option of switching her funding support to our Student Journalist of the Year Award in the event that an agreement were reached. We fly both the Young Journalist and Student winners to attend the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in the United States. Ms Nicholls declined that offer and withdrew her support.

The MPC welcomes sponsorship from Australian companies — including banks — willing to help fund our important programs supporting journalism and young journalists in particular. Without such sponsorship we would not exist. In accepting corporate sponsorship we do not endorse the products or conduct of those sponsors. Our corporate sponsors neither ask for nor expect special media treatment in return for their support.

Most importantly, corporate sponsors have no involvement in or influence over the judging of the Quill awards which are decided by independent panels of journalists. The integrity of our awards is overseen by the Chief Judge of the Quill Awards — former Supreme Court justice, the Honourable Bernard Teague.

Banks have a long history of supporting press clubs in Australia. It has not compromised the clubs’ independence and it would never compromise the independence of the Melbourne Press Club. The principal sponsor of the National Press Club is Westpac and the NPC’s previous principal sponsor was the National Bank.

Our discussions with prospective sponsors have in no way diminished the MPC’s commitment to addressing the important issues raised in the Hayne Royal Commission.

Today (Friday 1 March) we are hosting a major forum on the fallout from the Royal Commission with an expert panel including former ACCC chief Allan Fels, Professor Ian Ramsay and MPC president Adele Ferguson.

Adele Ferguson, whose fearless journalism helped trigger the royal commission, has just completed a book that will put a fresh spotlight on the conduct of the Australian financial services sector over the past few years.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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