Media headhunters go to… a celebration of our free press

This evening’s British Journalism awards was a low key affair (and not the boozy do media headhunters have witnessed in the past). That said, it wasn’t – as you might expect given the Leveson inquiry and the mass-summoning of newspaper editors to No 10 today – a downbeat affair.

It was run by Press Gazette which, even in its new online-only form, continues to celebrate the best (and excoriate the worst) in British journalism. It was fitting, in this week of all weeks, that the awards were held in the sober surroundings of the Stationer’s Hall. The Stationer’s Company, its spokesman reminded us, was responsible for enforcing the closure of unlicensed publications for much of its early history. ‘Unlicensed’, of course, meant ‘unapproved’.

The evening’s big winner (apart from a unanimously supported posthumous award to Marie Colvin) was David Walsh. His is not the most recognisbale name in journalism - but he was voted both Sports Journalist of the Year and Journalist of the Year, the evening’s highest award.

Why? For 13 years, Walsh pursued the story that Lance Armstrong was a drugs cheat. Despite legal action from Armstrong and pressure from all around, which made him a pariah in the cycling world and nearly bankrupted him, he continued. Finally, this year, and despite Armstrong defaming him in interviews and depositions, Walsh was proved right.

Walsh is a quiet, sincere and modest individual. He almost apologised for winning the Sports Journalist award. He was astonished to be given the Journalist of the Year award, but still managed to make a telling point. In France or America, with the same level of evidence, he believes that he could much more easily have published the Armstrong story.

The libel law here – and its interpretation by certain judges – makes the UK one of the most difficult places to (in the old phrase) ‘speak truth to power’. We have a libel industry which is second-to-none, as the recent rash of super-injunctions has shown. But the free press, for all its occasional – and deplorable – excesses, is a balance.

Image of newspapers

Image of newspapers courtesy of Birdfarm (Flickr)

The fact that we know about the super-injunctions at all is down to having a free press. The fact that we know about tax avoidance by major corporates and senior civil servants, about Oliver Letwin’s dumping of sensitive files, about the use of India’s poorest in drug trials, about police infiltration of the protest movement, or many other stories which were celebrated tonight, is entirely the work of the free press.

Democracy without a free press is a farce. But it does not require a Paul Dacre or a Dominic Mohan to defend its role. If the media needs a representative to put up in front of the politicians who will decide about statutory regulation, they should choose David Walsh. A decent, quiet, modest man who has dedicated his life to reporting the truth.