The Toby Young Memorial Prize* for Media Egotism: Amol Rajan's self-judged, self-created award secures him the crown

Rajan has been hijacking Bertrand Russell's name since 2017, but clearly wanted more attention this year.

Since 2017, the BBC’s Media Editor and occasional Radio 2/One Show fill-in host, Amol Rajan, has been doling out the Russell Award. Lifting the idea from the Sidney Awards — a similarly egotistical exercise undertaken every year by the New York Times’ David Brooks — Rajan uses the BBC News website for this pet project, listing his favourite journalism and essays of the year.

The awards framing and the notion that he is "[celebrating] journalism and writing that honours the intellectual and moral virtues [Bertrand] Russell’s prose exemplified” is a snide way to avoid saying “here are some things I liked”. As he often does, Rajan must over-intellectualise what are ultimately his preferences.

This expression of his tastes with its ludicrous “award” shaped wrapping belongs on a personal blog, not the pages of the BBC News website. But Rajan assures readers in a spiky preface to this year’s list that he has no time for criticism. Only licence payers who get on board with his game are welcome. He writes:

I'm impartial. I'm not endorsing any of the positions taken by any of these writers. If you want to bombard me with post-structuralist analysis of how I'm reinforcing discourses and hierarchies of oppression, or whatever it might be, honestly, it's not worth your time. I just love great writing.

Nothing says impartial like expressing heavy disdain for “post-structuralist analysis” and it’s certainly not abject cowardice to select several controversial pieces and then claim to “just love great writing”. It’s often said that liberals hear only tone and not content; in Rajan’s case that claim irrefutable.

His first choice is an essay — How Philanthropy Benefits The Rich — by Paul Vallely, his former colleague on The Independent. Rajan discloses that connection at the top of his commendation for the piece and then goes on to reiterate his argument that he just likes the form of these arguments rather than what’s inside them:

I don't endorse the arguments therein, but it will certainly make you think again about whether philanthropy is being used not just to distract from bad behaviour, but to nullify the possibility of social and economic reforms that might address the many crises we are living through - including several that philanthropists say they're motivated to resolve.

“Certainly makes you think,” is another cowardly formation in British discourse. Its true meaning is: “I’m too chicken shit to take a public stand on this so I’m stroke my chin and note how interesting it all is and how much there is to discuss.”

In at 4 on Rajan’s like totally impartial list is Ian Leslie’s 64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney, which combines listing interesting facts about the ex-Beatle with shooting down received ideas about his life and art. It’s enjoyable but for Rajan, it’s something else; it’s an opportunity to give his theories on writing a run out:

And there are several intellectual crimes that he prosecutes, from the naive casting of McCartney as a bohemian floozy, to the false dualism of his relationship with John Lennon, to the misunderstanding of him as a secondary figure in the most successful band of all-time… I really admire the profusion of short sentences in this essay: "Why Paul? I don't know. I like his face, I suppose", and constant outbreaks of profundity.

My two least favourite words in English, after "cancer" and "malignant", are "Shakespearean" and "Orwellian". These ludicrously imprecise terms always exhibit lazy thinking. Orwellian is generally used to connote something totalitarian, you know, Big Brother is Watching You. I'm not going to commit the very crime I've just called out, but I will say that, in its mixture of brevity and profundity, Leslie writes sentences Orwell would have been proud to call his own.

In praising what he sees as good writing, Rajan blunders around like a clown in a minefield, detonating cliches with every stumble. Consider his desire to use, as Mark Twain said, a five-dollar-word when a fifty-cent word will do”. Rajan writes “profusion” when “use” would do, repeats the word “profundity” in two consecutive paragraphs, and types lumbering phrases like “…constant outbreaks of profundity.”

Though Rajan says he’s a devotee of Orwell’s writing rules, he favours complexity and pretension over simplicity. He writes like a man who thinks he’s tremendously clever rather than one who can demonstrate that.

Rajan’s third-placed essay is where his claim not to endorse any of the content in his choices falls apart like a cold Mince Pie in a hot hand. By choosing JK Rowling’s blog post, Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues, only someone of almost super-human ignorance could claim to not be taking a political position. Once again, Rajan is an abject coward:

In a blog about the transgender debate, she offended many people. Offence is the price of free speech. Those offended felt she was questioning their identity and even attacking their human rights, which they argue is a form of discrimination or hate speech.

I take absolutely no view whatsoever on the issues that she raises.

In the first paragraph he makes assertions — “Offence is the price of free speech.” — while in the second, a single sentence, he claims he has no view on the issues at hand. He knows this is disingenuous but, as his earlier disclaimer made clear, he doesn’t care to engage with any criticism.

He slides completely off the rails later in his discussion of Rowling’s words by bringing Enoch Powell into his argument. He knows well how summoning the spectre of Powell is received. In 2018, Rajan’s documentary on Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, and the manner it was marketed caused uproar. But he learned no lesson from that experience and once again praises what he considers to be Powell’s rhetorical skill:

It is an interesting fact about rhetoric that if you want people to understand something, plain, monosyllabic words are usually your best bet: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country".

Or think of the final line from Enoch Powell's most notorious speech: "All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal."

Once again he follows his obvious provocation with a version of his now-familiar disclaimer:

I'm not endorsing the argument; but the rhetorical power of that line comes from the fact that there are 16 words, the first 15 of which have one syllable, the last of which has three.

If Rajan is willing to praise Powell’s rhetoric, context and content free, how long before he pens a blog post on the economical language choices of the Third Reich. After all, what was Arbeit Mach Frei but the kind of three-word slogan our current government has become so keen on during the current crisis?

Having injected the necessary controversial points into his list, Rajan moves on to the runner-up for his very real award — Wade Davis’ Rolling Stone essay The Unraveling of America. It’s here that Rajan indulges in his addiction to adjectives. Davis’ is writing about a change that is “not just historic but epochal”, his essay is “seminal”, “dazzling”, “exhilarating”, “magnificent” and “magisterial”. Beware the writer with a word count and an inability to find an economical way of saying “this is good”.

The winner of the Russell Prize, as decided by the prize founder, head judge, and one man jury of thousands, Amol Rajan, is Decca Aitkenhead for her article How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief. I read the piece when it was first published and there’s no denying that its a powerful and emotionally-devastating bit of writing.

The heart of Aitkenhead’s essay is the moment in May 2014 when her son was swept out to sea in Calabash Bay, Jamaica, and saved by her partner Tony Wilkinson, who lost his life in the process. Rajan’s response is to connect himself to the article because… he honeymooned on nearby Treasure Beach. He writes:

“I do realise it is the height of vanity to insert oneself in stories of such pain felt by others, but there is a very minor connection which has always made this story particularly affect me. My wife and I spent half our honeymoon in Jamaica, on Treasure Beach, which is just next to Calabash Bay.

We were on the same beach in Calabash just 12 weeks before Aitkenhead and her family. Our son, Winston, is now four, and our daughter is one. Her name is Jamaica.”

He realised it was crass. He did it anyway. The ego is enormous. And it doesn’t end there. Using the fact that Aitkenhead’s article is about returning to Jamaica to take a psilocybin trip as a jumping-off point, he goes back to his chin-stroking around the Russell Prize in 2018:

“… I mentioned that a growing band of writers, including Andrew Sullivan, were trying to create new paradigm for thinking about drugs in public life…”

I have long been of the opinion that only wankers go on about paradigms.

Having offered up his list of ‘great writing’ — which denying that content has any role in his choices — the Amol the Cowardly Lion repeats his disclaimer once again:

Let me repeat, again, in case you're thinking of getting angry, and sat in front of a keyboard, that I am not endorsing any position in relation to drugs, transgender issues, America, Paul McCartney or philanthropy. But I do endorse great writers and great writing.

I’m not angry. I’m not even disappointed. To be either would mean I expected better of Amol Rajan. Having followed his career for some time, there was no chance of that occurring. So instead of raging, I’m simply following his lead and establishing my own award — The Toby Young Memorial* Prize for Media Egotism. There was a strong field of nominees, but Rajan just edged it. Congratulations!


*Please note: I know that Toby Young isn’t dead. It’s just important in these difficult times to hold on to some optimism about the future.**

**This is also a joke and I’m sure General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young, won’t mind.