Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Media gongs wrung out

Citizens have been dragging their dinner suits and ball gowns out of mothballs for an impressive end-of-year season of awards ceremonies. 

A gaggle of 800 media reptiles assembled for the annual Walkley gongs, this time in Sydney at Dockside Pavilion, Darling Harbour.

The evening seemed unseasonably restrained without anyone being hurled off the stage or fisticuffs breaking out among inebriated hacks. 

A lot of people mistook Quarterly Essay editor Chris Feik for Paul Toohey, on account of him picking up an award for an absent Top End correspondent. Most embarrassingly, some even reminisced with a bemused Feik about their good old days together at The Bulletin, a career move actually missing from Feik’s time line. 

Actor and former Play School star Rhys Muldoon was hired by the Walkley people to script the evening for presenter Sarah Ferguson

It’s a hell of a job doing the presenting because everyone is chatting, hooting and drinking and couldn’t care less what the person out front is talking about. 

Consequently, Rhys’s sparkling script sounded as interesting as an editorial in The Australian, at least those parts of it that survived the presenter’s radical cuts. 

1 . Politics prominent at PM’s lit awards

The PM’s Literary Awards at the National Gallery of Victoria on Monday was a night of unsurpassed splendour, what with Ray Martin MC-ing, Bookshelves Brandis the officiating minister and Peta Credlin looking like she wanted to murder someone. 

Tony Abbott made an awkward speech in which he saluted “the contribution of Australian writers” and made special mention of two stars, chick-lit specialist Nikki Gemmell and potboiler hero Bryce Courtenay

Abbott applauded rapturously as those on the shortlists were read out, until it came to Mike Carlton’s name in the Australian history section, for his book First Victory. Suddenly the PM’s clap rate collapsed. 

But that was nothing compared with the frozen grimaces from Bookshelves and the PM as Bob Graham, winner of the children’s fiction prize for Silver Buttons, announced he was donating $10,000 from his award money to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

If that was not bad enough, Richard Flanagan then proceeded to extol the virtues of free education and the importance of a society that “looks after the weakest”. 

Somewhere in the fine print of the rules for these lavish awards is a provision that allows the retrospective cancellation of a prize. No doubt this clause is the subject of close scrutiny by Bookshelves’ legal department. 

The show dragged on so long that it exceeded the official embargo for publication of the winners. So, The Age had published online the successful nominees before the envelopes were torn open and names announced on stage at the NGV.

Anyone who wants to understand the fraught discussions, compromises and politics involved in judging literary awards should study Edward St Aubyn’s coruscating attack Lost for Words

2 . Rights and wrongs and heckling Hicks

Which leads us naturally to another uneasy night on Wednesday at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where the Human Rights Commission held its annual awards show. 

The Credlin Party has been engaged in a guerilla war with the commission, so possibly it was a bit much to swallow Bookshelves (Bigot) Brandis’s gush to the spellbound attendees: 

“It was one of my objectives as the attorney-general to elevate the debate about human rights on the national agenda …” 

Interesting use of the word “elevate”. Naturally he ignored the US senate intelligence committee’s just-released findings on the CIA’s regime of torture, which had been implicitly backed by the Credlinites. 

Instead, he patted the government on the back for releasing children from mandatory detention on Christmas Island – children who were used as extortion to get the crossbenches to wave through Scott Morrison’s human rights deficient amendments to the Migration Act. 

Naturally, Bookshelves stood as speechless as a bookshelf as David Hicks got to his feet and asked for an explanation as to why he was tortured at Gitmo. 

Yes, it was a great night for human rights. 

3 . Getting connected

We should not overlook RMIT’s circle of winners where we find former Victorian attorney-general Rob (F*@#!&’) Hulls among a fascinating list of academics who are celebrated for the most mentions in the media. 

While some are Global Media Stars or even Rising Media Stars, Hulls comes home in a new category, Connected Media Star. He’s an adjunct professor in the Centre for Innovative Justice, and given the quality of some of the justice dished out in his state these days, the prof needs all the connections he can muster to get into the ear of the new AG, the footy (Carlton) and horseracing fan, former union boss and ex-solicitor Marty Pakula and push hard for some innovative Lawn Order reforms. 

4 . An education on what was free

On the free education front, Little Johnny Howard was fuming that the pulchritudinous Cate Blanchett hadn’t given sufficient recognition to his patron saint, Pig Iron Bob Menzies

Howard, who has been desperately competing with Menzies in a luxuriant eyebrows competition, said it was “outrageous” for Blanchett to claim at Whitlam’s memorial service that the great Gough introduced free tertiary education. 

Why, no, said the Junior Menzies, because the last three years of gruelling swotting for his conveyancing certificate “were completely free” and that was 11 years before Whitlam came to power. 

He said the idea that Whitlam did this great thing “ought to be called out more frequently”. 

He was, of course, referring to Commonwealth Scholarships, which he told a dazzled News Corpse hack were given to 70 per cent of university students. 

From where that percentage was plucked is a mystery. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a distinction between Commonwealth scholarships given to brilliant people, such as Howard, and free tertiary education provided in Whitlam’s time to everyone. 

The Credlin government today is doing its darnedest to make university education as expensive as possible, unless, of course, you are an Abbott daughter with access to special scholarships no one else knows about. 

Surely, it’s Howard who should be “called out more frequently”. 

5 . Downer launch for Menzies tome 

The Menzies legacy also gets a good leg-up in Anne Henderson’s latest work, Menzies at War

I trust the book adequately explains Ming’s role as a great war hero. If not, I’m sure that high commissioner Lord Downer at Australia House on “Strand Street” would have done that. 

His Lordship launched the tome in London on Wednesday night, followed by a “wine and canapés reception” to mark the Menzies Centre’s season of the Anzac Day centenary “celebrations”. 

The previous time I heard Lord D speak of war and politics he was getting stuck into Labor’s record, saying that since World War II it had been “consistently weak ... particularly on the issues of appeasement, isolationism and shirking international treaty obligations”. 

Security arrangements at Australia House are tight. Anyone could register to attend the event, but those without a prior booking “will not be granted access to the building”. 

Keeping Lord Downer safe requires eternal vigilance. 

6 . Putting paid to an inadvertent ‘lie’

To the Guardian Live event on Tuesday night to hear outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger talk about liberty, press freedom, and governments’ quest to control what is written and read in the post-Snowden world. (Gadfly’s Guardian Australia interest disclosed last week.) 

It was a packed house at Sydney’s Carriageworks for the first of these Guardian events and there was some nifty signage out front: a big G and next to it on individual poles the letters l-i-v-e. 

An alert Guardian operative noted in advance of proceedings that when Alan stood in front of the sign his head was in front of the “v”, so the event would have been billed as G “l-i-e”. 

The signage was smartly moved from behind the speaker, to the side. 

It takes a special sort of talented advance scout to spot these booby traps. 

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 13, 2014 as "Gadfly: Media gongs wrung out".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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