Why journalists should boycott the Comment Awards

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

Shortly before his death, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that capitalism crushed the integrity of artists and intellectuals. Assessed only in terms of their commercial appeal, they became ‘a sub-department of marketing’. In a touching display of filial loyalty, Julia Hobsbawm seems to be proving her old dad right.

The former head of New Labour’s favourite PR agency, Hobsbawm Macaulay, now runs an outfit called Editorial Intelligence, ‘a tool for… bringing together key journalists and PR professionals through networking clubs’. Journalists once had a vague notion that their job was to tell the truth whatever the cost, while PRs believed they must protect their institution whatever the cost. There was a natural antipathy between them, which Hobsbawm has sought to break down under the guise of ‘networking’. For a mere £1,500 a year (£3,000 for corporate membership), marketing managers, PR execs, brand promoters, lobbyists, and people who can never explain what they do but insist on doing it anyway, can ‘create and build your personal and professional network… not with algorithms but with real people, face-to-face, and real human intelligence’.

The question remained: how could Hob-sbawm persuade journalists and academics to give ‘face time’ to such an unappealing crew? Surely, they would run a mile. Hobsbawm enlists a good many of them to speak at her annual Names Not Numbers conference in Oxford, described by Niall Ferguson as ‘like Davos… with community singing’. This makes it sounds like hell on earth, but I imagine large cheques ease the suffering. Her main inducement, however, is to play on journalists’ most glaring vice: not greed, but vanity. A hunger for awards.

Hobsbawm’s annual Comment Awards for pundits and columnists will be held this year at ‘our lead partner, Edwardian Hotels, at their beautiful May Fair Hotel in Mayfair’. It is a cleverly constructed trap. Journalists don’t enter their work. Nor do their editors. Instead, the judges announce a shortlist — and dare pundits to refuse to play along. They invariably end up parading in front of the assembled lobbyists, like performing seals waiting to be thrown a fish.

Fraser Nelson says he made it clear some years ago that this publication will not accept or attend these awards — though that didn’t stop him accepting one himself in 2009. I would mock him for his hypocrisy, except that to my shame, I succumbed too. About a decade ago I found myself at a table where I was expected to make conversation with assorted PR types. We had nothing to say to each other. If the man from Barclays had tipped me off about the Libor rigging scandal, then under way, or the woman from Vodafone had given me a steer on how it had cut its UK tax bill, the evening would have gone with a swing.

Unfortunately, whistleblowers are the last people journalists are likely to meet. I speak from experience when I say the event is the corporate equivalent of community singing; a happy, clappy, back–slappy smugfest where not one discordant voice suggests that journalists and lobbyists are not all in this together, and might have fundamentally diverging interests. Forewarned is forearmed, and I simply ignored the invitation when I was nominated last year. My — I hope — impressively Olympian indifference was a mistake. Violent public denunciations are the way ahead.

In 2014, the Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner demanded that his name be taken off the food and drink shortlist because Tesco sponsored it. In his old-fashioned way, he did not believe that self-respecting journalists should be collecting gongs from the people they are paid to scrutinise. ‘I could in no way accept any sort of award sponsored by one of the biggest supermarket companies,’ he told me. ‘It was crass in the extreme, but then Hobsbawm really is. She goes on about the power of networking, without clocking the conflicts that can cause.’

This year’s judges include such noted literary stylists and exposers of corruption as Dami Fajobi, head of client services at Slenky, the chief lobbyists from Vodafone and Fidelity International, and Patricia Hamzahee from something called ‘Integriti Capital’.

Two of the finalists they were meant to judge, the Guardian’s Gary Younge and Nesrine Malik, demanded their names be taken off the shortlist for the social diversity category on the grounds that they had been nominated alongside Melanie Phillips, a purveyor of allegedly ‘offensive attacks on immigrants in general and Muslims in particular’. Whether Phillips responds in kind remains to be seen.

In a novel twist, one of this year’s judges has walked out with them. A Lib Dem activist with the unimprovable name of Helen Belcher denounced Janice Turner of the Times for having the audacity to write about the opportunities for rapists and child abusers that the policy of allowing men to identify as women brought. Turner was, Belcher libellously implied, somehow responsible for trans suicides. Belcher resigned when her fellow judges did not take the cue and disqualify Turner as a ‘Terf’, the modern equivalent of a witch.

The awards are a sign of an age when PRs working in the UK outnumber journalists by a large margin. Most of the students who spend thousands on postgraduate journalism courses will not get jobs in Britain’s declining news business — as the colleges who take their money must know. They will end up in PR, where the supposedly leftish education they received on a media studies BA will prove remarkably useful to the bureaucracies that own their souls. A smattering of Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard here, a little deconstruction there, and the 21st-century graduate is ready to believe there is no such thing as objective truth and feel justified in telling whatever lie their employers want them to utter.

There are, I accept, newspapers that function as little more than PR departments for their proprietors’ prejudices. But even if you absent them from the equation, the balance of power between those who expose and those who conceal is dangerously tilted. And as newspapers get weaker, the balance will be tilted to a tipping point. There are many reasons for journalists to refuse to participate in the Comment Awards. The best is this: Hobsbawm and her corporate sponsors are not praising journalists, but inviting them to their own funeral.

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