Emulating Britain's writing awards might improve political journalism

The Orwell Prizes, named after the author of '1984,' reward serious political writing, by journalists, authors, and bloggers.
The Orwell Prizes, named after the author of '1984,' reward serious political writing, by journalists, authors, and bloggers.

LONDON, ENGLAND — Martin Moore, director of Media Standards Trust, suggested we meet at Starbucks on Victoria Street, near Westminster Abbey. My Seattle office is just down the street from Starbucks headquarters, I told him, so that would be fitting.

Martin had invited me to attend the Orwell Prize Awards Ceremony at Church House, Dean's Yard, Westminster. The prizes, which might be compared to the Pulitzer Prizes in the U.S., are given to a journalist, a book author and — just since last year — to a blogger.

The Orwell Prizes have become Britain'ꀙs most prestigious awards for political writing. About 400 people gathered for the presentations. The winners are kept secret until they are announced.

The London room was filled with journalists from all over Great Britain. This year, 212 books were entered for the Book Prize, 85 journalists for the Journalism Prize, and 164 bloggers for the Blog Prize. These were pared down by a distinguished group of judges to a "shortlist" of six books, seven journalists and six bloggers. Most of the shortlisters were there, hoping to accept in person if they won.

I met Harry Edington, former Moscow correspondent for The Daily Mail. As it happened, he was good friends with two of the shortlist finalists — Peter Hitchens, who writes for The Mail on Sunday, and John Kampfner, author of Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost our Liberty.

Sir David Bell, chairman of the Financial Times Group, welcomed the crowd and introduced D. J. Taylor, who chairs the Orwell Trust. Taylor said he was "wearing the tie that George Orwell wore on his deathbed," which added a certain historical frisson.

Orwell once said that his goal was "to make political writing into an art." The Orwell Prize was founded in 1994 by the late Sir Bernard Crick, who wrote a biography of Orwell, royalties from which help fund the awards. The goal is to "encourage political discussion and enthuse the public about politics."

The first award, for journalism, certainly accomplished the goal of encouraging political discussion: The prize went to Peter Hitchens, who writes from a distinctly conservative perspective. When he took the stage to accept, Hitchens quipped, "This must have been difficult for you," since most journalists tend to lean leftward.

My new friend Harry Edgington told Hitchens afterward that this might lead to "respectability." Hitchens replied, "Don'ꀙt say that!"

Hitchens later told another journalist blogger: "They'll hate me even more for this."

Hitchens' brother Christopher is a famously liberal writer. The two have written books recently taking different sides of the debate over religion. Christopher's is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Peter's is The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith.

Just for fun, I asked Peter Hitchens to sign my program. His signature is quite illegible, but he put it right next to his name, and underlined it with a flourish.

The book award went to Andrea Gillies for her Keeper, which is about caring for a relative with Alzheimer's disease.

Fittingly, the blog award went to "Winston Smith," who was not there in person since he blogs anonymously at winstonsmith33.blogspot.com. A friend accepted the award on his behalf. If you're going after an Orwell Prize, being named after the protagonist of 1984 can't hurt.

Who deserves awards for political writing in Seattle? Suggestions welcome!

A version of this article appeared earlier on the web site of the Washington News Council.


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