Diary of a Walkleys judge

Editors’ note: Behind the scenes of the Walkley Awards lies a whole lot of work, much of it generously done by the 100-plus senior journalists who serve as judges. Judging is two-tiered. The three-expert panel goes first. They spend a couple of weeks assessing the submissions, then go into a small room at the Walkley Foundation and nail down which three candidates are their top choices. They have appraisal forms to help them evaluate the entries and guidelines on what to consider. From those three choices, the Walkley Board — a rotating panel of 12 senior journalists — pick the winners. You can read all about that process here. What happens in the judging room stays in the judging room. But we can give you a peek: Here’s judge Brett McLeod, a journalist at the Nine Network, on his experience this year.

Brett McLeod, 2015 Walkleys judge.

Brett McLeod, 2015 Walkleys judge.

By Brett McLeod

Let me get this out of the way. To all those who put in an entry this year, I formally apologise.

You know it, I know it, let’s have it in black and white: I’m not worthy.

This is not false modesty. This is thoroughly well deserved modesty.

I am a journo with 30 years’ experience in radio and television, not print. Naturally, I assumed the request to judge the Commentary, Analysis, Opinion and Critique category was sent to the wrong address. Especially when you consider the two other judges were Sarrah Le Marquand, The Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing opinion editor, and Deborah Snow, Sydney Morning Herald senior writer. At this party, I’m more like the guy to whom people keep saying, “And, sorry, your name again is…?”

Still, I wasn’t going to waste the invite.

I started with the task as it was presented. Fifty-nine contributors had entered the category, each putting in three pieces, mostly from print. At a rough calculation the word count before me was about the size of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. And I had to read it in in 10 days. I say this as someone who has actually been struggling through Middlemarch for about six months now. And I’ve only just finished the dedication.

Piece of cake.

I called upon all my experience as a working journalist to consider how I could do this with as little effort as possible. Maybe I should just scan through the 177 articles, pick out the ones I like and then read through those ones properly.

That would be quick, and no one would be the wiser. But would it be fair? Yeah, right — like we work in a fair business.

Still …

In the end, I did read through every word of every article, because that’s what I would want if I had entered. I made notes on each, a total of about four thousand words alone. And mostly it was a journey of new and rediscovered pleasures. There were many writers I was familiar with, whom I look forward to reading each week, and re-reading their pieces was a treat. There were others I had never heard of whose work was so good I printed off copies for my family to read.

Then I picked the ones I liked best and re-read them to get my personal shortlist of about eight entrants.

Then I had a damn drink, because I’d earned it.

Finally, judgement day. A no-holds-barred contest between me and the other two judges. The Walkleys people made it clear: There was no time limit, and no one was coming out of the meeting until just three names were left standing.

I noticed, preparing for the meeting, how the dynamic had changed between me and the entrants. No longer was I sorting through 59 names. I was moving from judge to advocate. I had picked my team, I knew whose side I was on, and I was going to fight for them, damn it!

Here’s just a sample of how the knock-down, drag-out brutality played out:

WALKLEYS ADJUDICATOR: OK folks, over to you, away you go.

(Sound of paper shuffling. Pens being clicked, throats cleared. Silence.)

SARRAH: Boy it’s been tough to narrow down my list.

DEB: I know.

ME: Uh-huh.

(Silence)

(Louder silence)

(Someone’s watch is ticking.)

Somehow, we got into it.

The majority of pieces were about politics, naturally, and that appeals to a junkie like me. But what I also liked was those who weren’t full-time journalists who brought their own expertise to their writing – be they as law, medicine or political insider. They let us peek behind the curtain of their own professions, often giving candid personal insights, and gave their articles resonance long after I’d finished them. But in the end I was swayed by those who have to churn out articles regularly. Their dance can often be the toughest because the blank screen is the most demanding for them.

Eventually, after 45 minutes of back and forth that was actually like an especially genteel shuttlecock match, we came up with a list of six names. Reducing that to the required three names took another 45 minutes of going round the bases over and over, arguing for each of our favourites, later arguing against ourselves, before at last reaching agreement.

One thing we judges were unanimous on from the start: we were sorry we couldn’t pick more finalists; so many more entries were worthy.

To all who entered, thank you. This has been a big task, but one of one of the most rewarding I have ever been given.

I’m just glad George Eliot wasn’t pumping out any opinion pieces this year.

Brett McLeod is a journalist for the Nine Network.

View all the Walkley finalists and read the stories in our online showcase.