Remember golden age when people paid for news

Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

THE VIEW FROM TABLE 42: Four hundred and fifty sports journalists in a room, and it was all very polite and quite sober. KEITH ELLIOTT on a night which reflected the changes in the business

Whatever happened to those golden days, when awards ceremonies were less about who won, and more about the brawls in the bar or the street afterwards? Older members of the sporting community will recall with misty eyes those halcyon times: eating until 10pm, awards until 11pm, drinking until 1am and fighting until everyone got thrown out.

Oh, it’s far more staid these days. Why, there was only a little applause when nominees were listed, and definitely no booing when winners were announced. You could hear what masterly compere Jim Rosenthal was saying most of the time. Acceptance speeches were short and polite to the point of dullness (not one raising a trophy aggressively and saying: “Stick this up your CD slot, you tossers!”). Though there were a few glimpses of our colleagues’ once-legendary reputation as drinkers, with a very healthy number still milling around the hallways of the Lancaster London when the bar closed at 1.30 on Tuesday morning.

Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Guests were impressed by the photography entries on display at the pre-dinner reception at the Sports Journalism Awards on Monday. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

But these are different times indeed. How would Patrick Collins’ impassioned plea for more entries from women writers have gone down a couple of decades ago? Certainly not with nodding-dog agreement, one suspects.

Collins called it “an unacceptable imbalance”, and in these more enlightened days, it seemed a good point. A mere six entries came from women, and this in a record year for the SJA. Around 450 people turned up at the Royal Lancaster to celebrate the apex of sports-writing, yet short-listed women entrants were as scarce as Aston Villa goals.

Then again, are we running the risk of becoming politically correct? Will the paucity of women writers, never mind entries into the annual awards, prompt the SJA to seek an equal opportunities officer? Glancing around the room, I noted that it wasn’t exactly packed out with people from ethnic minorities either, something which will be discussed at the Association’s Diversity Forum in a fortnight.

I’m the SJA’s first port of call for those seeking jobs in sports journalism, and I’ve got to tell you that I haven’t handled half a dozen emails, letters or phone calls in the past two years from women whose dream is to cover Morecambe v Yeovil on a wet Tuesday night.

There are a few – alas, very few – women writing on sport. You’ll find plenty in areas like equestrianism, a couple in athletics, but the cupboard is woefully bare in those sectors that dominate the back pages. It’s not a lack of talent, either. Of the six entries for the SJA’s awards, three won a category or were highly commended.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Matt Lawton (C) receives The Sports News Reporter Award from Martin Kelner and Nicole Cooke during the The SJA British Sports Journalism Awards on February 22, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images). *** Local Caption *** Martin Kelner;Matt Lawton;Nicole Cooke
Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail receives the Sports News Reporter award from Martin Kelner and Olympic cycling gold medallist Nicole Cooke. Lawton was one of several award-winners to express their best wishes for friends and colleagues on The Independent. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Post-Collins’ plea, someone suggested to me that the SJA might consider introducing a women-only category. Won’t happen. That’s merely saying women are not good enough to compete with their male counterparts. Answers to the sports editors of every national newspaper, please.

On a brighter note. This event has rightly been berated in the past for being dominated by what was once called Fleet Street. Sports journalists on local papers felt it wasn’t worth entering because they had no chance against giants like Hugh McIlvanney, Martin Samuel, Henry Winter, Martin Johnson and others. Magazine journos on titles from rugby and boxing to autosport didn’t bother either.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Alan Dymock (C) receives The Rugby Journalist Award from John Hopkins (L) and Maggie Alphonsi (R) during the The SJA British Sports Journalism Awards on February 22, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images). *** Local Caption *** John Hopkins;Alan Dymock;Maggie Alphonsi
Magazine writer Alan Dymock receives his Rugby Journalist of the Year award from John Hopkins and World Cup-winner Maggie Alphonsi. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

But 2016 saw many more entries from these areas and one journalist, Alan Dymock from Rugby World, beat his national newspaper colleagues for the honour of rugby writer of the year. The same magazine was highly commended in the Special Sports Edition category, as was the Bath Chronicle for its efforts in commemorating their rugby club’s 150th anniversary.

The Racing Post’s Alastair Down took the Ladbroke’s Specialist Correspondent award, with its Lee Mottershead highly commended here too. A bit of diversity in subject matter here, at least.

And at least there’s one great writer they won’t have to worry about in 2016. The magnificent McIlvanney has announced his retirement at 82, and was awarded a standing ovation. As Patrick Collins said in tribute: ” I can think of only three people over the past 50 years who have succeeded in raising the standards and redefining the craft of sports writing. One was Ian Wooldridge, another was Frank Keating, and the last member of that astonishing trinity is Hugh McIlvanney.

“To describe him a great sports writer is rather like describing Muhammad Ali as a useful heavyweight.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Paul Hayward receives The Sports Writer Award from Patrick Collins during the The SJA British Sports Journalism Awards on February 22, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images). *** Local Caption *** Paul Hayward;Patrick Collins
Paul Hayward, now of The Telegraph, received the Sports Writer of the Year trophy from Patrick Collins on Monday. His career on the nationals began at The Independent. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

That was a touching moment. How much more poignant might the evening have been, though, had someone from The Independent scooped one of the awards? The paper, now at death’s door, was renowned for encouraging minority sports and allowed some great writers to flourish. But they have scattered to the four winds as accountants tutted and pronounced the Indy’s prognosis as incurable.

Several award-winners mentioned their mates on the Indy and when he went up to collect the Newspaper of the Year Award, Lee Clayton, the Mail‘s head of sport, made a strong speech about defending our industry, and the old-fashioned practice of spending real money to buy newspapers.

So let’s celebrate and cherish evenings such as the 2015 British Sports Journalism Awards, writers such as McIlvanney, newspapers that demand more than just the goalscorers. The Independent’s fate could be ours tomorrow.

  • Keith Elliott wrote a weekly column for The Independent from its launch for 23 years
  • As with all authored pieces on, the views expressed here do not represent the views or policy of the SJA. Readers are always welcome to post their comments on the content of this column and the rest of the site

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