COLIN SOMERVILLE: 'And this year's award for obsessive political correctness goes to...'

IT TOOK the Technics Mercury Music Prize five years to become the most publicised arts award in the UK, and a further five before it was won by a solo black female artist. It will never again be won by a solo black female artist whose mum hails from Benbecula. Ms Dynamite is probably still trying to work out why this recently bestowed signal of the music industry’s esteem was so swiftly dismissed as an instrument of tokenism by many of those rooting for one or more of the other 11 nominees.

So why do artists covet this award and who decides which one of them wins?

Artists like it because ‘The Mercury’ was conceived as a Bulgari to the Brits’ Ratners, a solid one-off of lasting worth as opposed to a shop window full of eye-catching trinkets.

The theory is that each entry is judged solely on the artistic merit of the music, rather than commercial success or the number of appearances in newspaper gossip columns.

I believe the practice corresponds to that theory, but the obsessive political correctness dictating the make-up of both the shortlist and the judging panel also condemns the award to terminal tokenism. You see, on the judging panel for the inaugural award 10 years ago, I was that token bloke from commercial radio, who as a bonus happened to be still working in my native Scotland, devastatingly delivering two entertainment minority groups for the price of one.

Like my fellow judges I was not doing it for the money - there was only a token payment on offer - but because it was a chance to be involved in something free from the cynical manipulative clutches of the major record companies. Years of watching them rotate the Lifetime Achievement Brit Award round each other to market whichever of their old established acts had a newly repackaged greatest hits compilation coming out had become extremely tedious.

Initially, there were over 200 albums to be whittled down to a shortlist of 10, all of which got crammed into my car boot as unexpected excess baggage on a camping holiday in France. The lingering memory from that holiday is the then current release from Ralph McTell. That, and trying to explain to my four-year-old daughter what ‘merde’ meant and not to repeat it over and over again.

The long list was then assembled by the estimable pop professor, Simon Frith, who still chairs the judging panel today.

In 1992 that panel included two young female editors, one responsible for style bible The Face, the other for Britain’s leading black publication. Then there was Mark Goodier of Radio 1, still Scottish beneath the estuary vowels, and legendary Irish DJ Dave Fanning, who knew Bono before he had hairs on his chest.

Equally legendary DJ Dave Haslam was a key figure in Manchester, and the Hacienda club in particular, Robert Sandall was pop prince at the Sunday Times, while Brenda Kelly was indie music’s media queen, then running Snub TV.

It was a line-up with colourful opinions that frequently clashed, but after a migraine-inducing day in the airless basement of a London hotel, a shortlist of 10 was produced.

Noble as the intention to maintain artistic integrity may have been, the process swiftly revealed it was far from immune to commercial pressures. When it got down to the nitty-gritty, the man from Mercury got increasingly agitated, saying that unless there were at least four major acts on the list the record retailers would not support the fledgling award.

It also became clear that the classical and folk/world genres had to be represented, although it was abundantly obvious that I had more chance of winning than either John Taverner or Bheki Mseleku.

This year, Joanna McGregor and Guy Barker were simply making up the numbers, because the Technics Mercury Music Prize going to a classical or jazz artist would be commercial suicide after a decade establishing the award in the public consciousness. Perhaps that is why the shortlist has been extended to 12 from the original 10, creating exposure for the token two without excluding sexy new dance and rock acts.

Ten years ago it came down to a straight fight between Primal Scream and U2, with the former winning the day because their supporters were stroppier, and everyone was "judged out". It was also the best record, and with hindsight just the right combination of the credible and commercial to lay the foundations for Mercury’s future. Inverted tokenism, if you will.

Whoever had won this year, the panel could have been accused of tokenism - Mancunians with beards (The Doves), old blokes who used to be bisexual (David Bowie), or the emperor of rock’s new clothes (at least three of the nominees).

Only when one of the jazz or classical records routinely included on that shortlist actually wins the thing can the Technics Mercury Music Prize be purely considered a token of esteem.