Neilson fell out with journalism directors over ‘audacious’ $50m awards plan

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A recent collaboration of Pacific journalists in an investigative programme, Pacific Plunder
A recent collaboration of Pacific journalists in an investigative programme, Pacific Plunder, supported by the Judith Neilson Pacific Project and the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Image: GIJN screenshot APR

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

Billionaire Australian philanthropist Judith Neilson who established a major journalism institute more than four years ago to boost independent media has revealed that she fell out with her management over an “audacious plan” costing $50 million that had “nothing to do with journalism”.

In her first media interview since four directors of the Judith Neilson Institute resigned suddenly in June, Neilson has told the Australian Financial Review that she “fell out” with the institute’s executive director Mark Ryan and director Jonathan Teperson over a plan for an annual Nobel-style “Judith Neilson Prize” that she knew nothing about.

The Sydney-based institute funds an important Pacific Project at The Guardian with independent reporting from indigenous islands journalists among other programmes in Australia assisting media.

“I was told I had to give $50 million for this project that’s got nothing to do with journalism,” Neilson told the newspaper.

“And if I didn’t give it, my credibility around town would be lost.”

She said she had once thought it “would be interesting to do something like a Nobel Prize”.

After “look[ing] at the Nobel Prize”, and the cost, she decided not do anything more.

‘Freedom for restless minds’
The Financial Review said a detailed scoping study was developed by the institute for the proposed “Judith Neilson Prize” aimed to give “restless minds the freedom to pursue creative ideas” through prize money that aimed to “free a great thinker from financial or administrative constraints”.

The proposal claims the development work was undertaken at “the request of the patron”, a claim that Neilson strongly denies.

The Judith Neilson Institute in Sydney
The Judith Neilson Institute in Sydney … awards proposal “wasn’t a practical idea”. Image: JNI

According to the newspaper, citing the scoping document, the cost of project development work “to date” had been $600,000.

“It appears that no time was spent deciding if this project was of value, could be done differently or should be stopped,” Neilson told the Financial Review.

Neilson said that the directors of the institute presented the proposal to her in February, but when they asked her to approve $10 million in initial funding, she declined to back the proposal as it “wasn’t a practical idea”.

According to the Financial Review, the Judith Neilson Institute was to be “to journalism what the Lowy Institute is to foreign affairs; hosting workshops and major events”.

Collaboration with journalism schools
The institute pledged to collaborate with university journalism schools and news organisations to improve reporting on the region, as well as debating key policy issues facing Australia.

“The institute has handed grants to major media organisations for journalism projects, including giving money to the Australian Financial Review to reopen a bureau in Asia,” the newspaper said.

“I had no idea what [the institute] did. Other than having parties,” Neilson told the newspaper. “They don’t have a journalist, but they have three people for events.

The dispute over the prize led to the abrupt resignation of four independent directors. Executive director Mark Ryan and director Jonathan Teperson have also since left.

However, Neilson has pledged that the Journalism Institute will continue with a change of direction – “and it’s going to succeed.”

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