Friday, December 01, 2006

Walkley Talkie

“Nothing gets journalists going like a story about journalists”. So writes Margaret Simons in today’s edition of Crikey. Simons was describing the aftermath of last night’s Australian journalism awards night’s biggest sensation, the onstage stoush between Crikey’s founder Stephen Mayne and the News Ltd journalist Glenn Milne. Mayne was presenting an award at the ceremony in Melbourne when a clearly drunken Milne rushed up onto the stage and pushed him off the platform.

The incident was captured on the SBS TV coverage of the night. Milne accused Mayne of being a disgrace to journalism and making things up. He was quickly restrained by the stage manager but broke free again to continue the tirade. Mayne fled the stage a second time as the irate Milne made his case. He was eventually overpowered by security and escorted off the premises. When Mayne finally had the stage to himself, he made an announcement “on behalf of Rupert Murdoch” describing Milne as “the former Sunday Telegraph political correspondent”.

There has been no love lost between Milne and Mayne since Mayne criticised Milne’s reporting of NSW politician John Brogden’s suicide attempt in 2005. Milne hinted that Brogden had called Helena Carr, wife of the former Labor Premier Bob Carr a "mail-order bride", and also sexually harassed two female journalists at a function a month earlier. Mayne argued the public interest was "not particularly strong", and not powerful enough to warrant reporting Brogden's off-the-record remarks.

Nevertheless Mayne’s prediction about the sacking of Milne is unlikely to come true. Crikey’s Jane Nethercote asked Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen if Milne’s employment might be threatened as a result. Absolutely not, said Breen. However he "will not be patted on the back for what he did last night". Instead, he will be "disciplined internally.” Milne himself apologised today saying “I lamentably mixed alcohol and migraine medication with shocking consequences”. These “shocking consequences” dominated the rest of the proceedings. It totally overshadowed the rest of the awards including the most coveted prize, the Gold Walkley. That award was won by the Four Corners team of Liz Jackson, Peter Cronau and Lin Buckfield for their investigative report on the arming of a civilian militia in East Timor.

This was the most important of 34 awards across all media categories including new Walkleys for sport reporting and sport feature writing. The veteran Canberra press gallery leader, Michelle Grattan won the Walkley for journalism leadership. She is the political editor for The Age newspaper and is also a political commentator on ABC Radio National. She was praised by journalists and politicians alike for the accuracy of her journalism although Labor leader Kim Beazley also called her a “serial pest”.

This is the 51th anniversary of the award ceremony. The Walkleys were established in 1956, with five categories, by Ampol Petroleum founder Sir William Gaston Walkley. The New Zealand born Walkley appreciated the media's support for his oil exploration efforts. Walkley was a dreamer who envisaged an Australian continent holding 150 million people, especially if the government built highways for settlement and defence, and diverted coastal rivers inland. He became interested in soccer when he realised that so many people from overseas were making their homes in Australia. He was instrumental in Australia joining FIFA in 1963 and he was anointed president of the Oceania region two years later.

Walkley quickly understood the value of publicity. He courted the media and flew journalists around the nation to business and sporting occasions. He great goodwill and confidences with the media. In 1956 he endowed awards that recognised emerging talent in the Australian media. After he died, the awards were bequeathed to the Australian Journalists' Association which is now part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Each October the finalists are named and the awards are presented a month later. The full list of this year’s award winners can be found here.

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