A night at the Walkleys

“It’s the worst Walkleys I’ve been to in terms of entertainment,” a veteran journalist told Crikey.com.au media journalist, Matthew Knott, after the awards night on Friday, adding it was “extraordinarily dull.”

Do you go to a Walkleys Awards night, expecting to be entertained? I don’t, although, of course, it would be a bonus. I go because when you’re a judge, you get a complimentary ticket, and because you get to see old mates who you wouldn’t normally come across during the year. (No matter how long the night lasts, you miss out on a few mates!)

It’s a television event, broadcast as live, by SBS, where it’s recorded and cut to fit the time allotted (and edit the boring bits, of course, like a long walk to the stage by a presenter), and the producers try to maintain the pace.

I watched the broadcast on IQ, a few days later, and it didn’t seem that boring to me. Okay, there were no dance routines or comedians like Billy Crystal to have us rolling in the aisles, but Anton Enus of SBS and Heather Ewart of the ABC did a good job of hosting the show, and keeping it moving.

It started well, with good opening graphics and a nice package of the major news events of the year, and right into the first award of the night, with Ellen Fanning of The Global Mail presenting the Walkley for the best Print News Report to Kate McClymont of the SMH and the Age for “(Craig) Thompson: New credit card claims.” And, as the case for nearly all the awards, there was no acceptance speech, to keep up the pace. (In the “real” live version, the Federal Secretary of the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), Chris Warren, threw to the wrap of the year. Chris wound up on the cutting room floor, but he did get to present the Gold Walkley on air!)

For those of us in the audience, watching the show live in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra, it was a great idea as the thought of each winner thanking his or her producer, editor, mentor, family, etc would have driven us to the nearest pub – the Speaker’s Corner in the Hyatt Hotel just down Commonwealth Avenue. There are simply too many categories to allow thank you speeches. Even the Academy Awards present Oscars before they go to air! Crikey complained – facetiously, I think — because their brilliant cartoonist, First Dog on the Moon, Andrew Marlton, who won the Best Cartoon Walkley for his incisive take on the asylum seeker issue, wasn’t shown getting his award until the credits rolled at the end of the broadcast.

And the Walkley Foundation is now considering whether the categories should be open to all content distributed on any platform, in other words, no longer dividing them into separate media, like print, radio, broadcast or online. I doubt that will happen as the Walkleys are also trying to decide whether the categories for digital journalism should be broadened, which would mean even more awards. The Global Mail, for example, is a quality digital magazine that is only published online, and they’ve already won journalism prizes in the Kennedy Awards, and had a finalist in the Walkleys (Ellen Fanning). Best headings are still a popular category, as Paul Dyer of the Northern Territory News demonstrated, with his Walkley for the three best headlines, especially, “Why I stuck a cracker up my clacker.” See photo above!

The Walkleys are even asking Alliance members whether they should recognise mobile journalism as a separate category. Why not, I ask, even though I still have trouble answering my Samsung Galaxy (no, I am not being paid for advertising, or my blog either!), which I got a month ago. If people are using their mobiles to produce quality journalism, they should be considered for a Walkley.

THE ‘RIGHT PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME’

The Walkleys are all about excellence in journalism, and that was the most controversial topic last Friday night, because the winner of the award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism brought it up during his acceptance speech. Peter Cave, the long-time foreign correspondent of the ABC, was mildly critical of the Walkleys, saying “some good” and “some terrible” decisions had been made over the past few years. He said he deserved only one of the previous five Walkleys he had received, the others were given because he happened to be in the “right place at the wrong time.” It’s supposed to be about excellence in journalism, he said.  Peter was critical of the televising of the broadcast and the use of autocue to make witty comments (I disagree with him on this, as some presenters freeze on air, even an “as live” broadcast!) He said the judging process should be reformed, and the Walkley Board should be divorced from the MEAA. You can judge for yourself Peter’s arguments in a copy of his speech on YouTube, including a video with some of his career highlights: http://bit.ly/TyPqdQ

In my experience, the judges are valued for their independence. The Walkley Foundation gives them guidelines on how to narrow down the short list of entries to three finalists, and it’s then up to the board to make the decisions. There are sometimes fierce arguments among the judges, but they usually pick the best three in the category, with a commendation allowed for another entry if they believe it deserves a special mention.

Peter Cave said he was happy to hear that the Walkleys had decided to review the categories and criteria. One of the sample questions the Foundation has suggested we consider is: How can the awards better promote the social value of professional journalism in Australia?

Well, that’s an easy one to answer, and I think that’s what Peter Cave was getting at in his acceptance speech. Professional journalism should be about excellence. That means we should be doing stories that matter, stories that people care about, stories that people watch and read. We should listen to what people are talking about, what they’re interested in, and what they want us to focus on.  It doesn’t mean we have to listen to shock jocks – God forbid – but to see what people are reading and watching and talking about in the pubs and shops. They want to know how the carbon tax will affect them, whether the Budget Surplus is necessary, whether the National Disability scheme will really help the disabled, when the politicians will stop attacking each other and actually do something positive for their electorates. The Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism is an example of what we can do. Steve Pennells, the Gold Walkley winner, also won the social equity award for his moving feature on the drowning victims of an asylum seeker tragedy. Another example is the Journalism Leadership Award taken out by The Border Mail for “Ending the Suicide Silence,” an issue that cries out to be told.

A relatively new Walkley award is for the best documentary, and this year it went to Celeste Geer and Rebel Films for an ABC TV production, Then the Wind Changed, about the poignant struggle by a Victorian regional community to recover from the Black Saturday bushfires. Journalism can help people cope and survive, by telling stories that prompt us to put ourselves into other people’s shoes. Empathy is the key word here, and any journalist worth his or her salt has this quality in spades.

THE SOCIETY OF PERPETUAL JUDGING

Another question suggested by the Walkley Foundation is: What should award-winning journalism mean today?

It should still be about quality. An award-winning story must be relevant, have impact and public benefit, be well written and produced, be original and make use of the latest technology if necessary (the Walkleys suggest some of the former criteria to judge entries now). Twitter and Facebook and online research can add to the story, and should be used if traditional methods fail. If new technology helps you tell a better story, then you should use it. Most newspapers add more information and video to enhance a story, especially a splash with lots of sidebars. If all this leads to excellence in journalism, then you should be an award-winner.

To return to Peter Cave, there was absolutely nothing wrong with what he had to say on Friday night, except he repeated himself a few times (quite understandable, given he was addressing 600 people and a national television audience).

After 40 years in journalism, he’s entitled to be honest in an acceptance speech to his peers. In fact, that was one of the traits he was honoured for by his colleagues, as well as for his sensitivity and skill.

And after my 40 years in journalism, I’d rather listen to Peter Cave’s honest appraisal of what’s wrong with the Walkleys, rather than a thank you speech with the usual superlatives. He received a standing ovation at the beginning and generous applause at the end.

There should be more awards … for blogging, citizen journalism, tweeting (Mark Colvin of the ABC should win that hands down) … and more Peter Caves.

As long as the Walkleys have journalists like my old mate, Laurie Oakes, as the chair of their advisory board, they can’t go wrong. I enjoyed listening to both his speeches on Friday night, and reading the keynote address he gave to the Walkley Media Conference on Thursday, the Alliance Centenary Lecture, titled The Future is Anybody’s Guess. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/TFnqFe (One of the reasons the Walkleys were in Canberra is that the capital will be celebrating its centenary next year.)

And, of course, the awards will need more independent judges, but there are so many experienced journalists being made redundant, the Walkley Foundation should have no trouble finding people to fill the positions. (You don’t get paid, but you do get a free lunch and a complimentary ticket to the Walkleys night of nights!)

In the U.S., old journos are constantly being called upon to judge awards, so much so that they have nicknamed the Society of Professional Journalists … the Society of Perpetual Judging.

I can identify with that, but I think it’s important for those of us who have had long careers in journalism to give something back to our profession.

The Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism is a good place to start.

PS If you want to see who won the 2012 Walkley Awards, here’s a gallery from the Walkley website: http://bit.ly/TE23ba

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