'Don't blame me for editor's suspension,' insists Mandy

Mandelson: “There is another problem” behind Blackwood’s suspension

Peter Mandelson denied this week that his complaints about Hartlepool Mail editor Harry Blackwood had led to his suspension.

The Hartlepool MP told Press Gazette: “I would like to say ‘Yes’ and that the inimitable style in which he edits that paper has caught up with him. But I fear not. There is another problem.”

Last year, the MP blamed the defeat of the Labour candidate for mayor by H’Angus the Monkey on the Mail’s coverage of the election.

Johnston local management is holding an inquiry into alleged gross misconduct by Blackwood, who is said to be on 30 days’ sick leave. It was linked by The Mail on Sunday at the weekend to complaints made by both the MP and the Prime Minister to Johnston non-executive chairman Roger Parry.

In a statement, the company admitted Blackwood had been the subject of complaints from Mandelson, but said they had been rejected. “Setting the record straight”, the company categorically rejected “any suggestion that the Prime Minister, or anyone representing him, has made contact with or endeavoured to apply pressure in any way on anyone connected with Johnston Press. Quite simply any such suggestion is completely and utterly wrong.” The issues in Hartlepool were solely “a reflection of wide-ranging, editorially based concerns which have emerged over a period of some months”, the statement continued.

Local editorial director Andrew Smith had conducted a detailed review of editorial management standards and content of the Mail. His report, which identified various matters of concern, had been reviewed by senior Johnston editors unconnected with the Mail and by an independent editorial consultant, said the company.

Staff remain staunchly in support of their editor and have sent in a letter to the company in his support. Their anger at what they call a “witch-hunt” has been exacerbated in the past few days by a series of sweeping changes brought in by Smith. He has interviewed reporters and specialist writers, asking them if they enjoyed their specialisms and whether they would like to change. In a memo to staff on Monday, signed in his absence, Smith said they were not to: use swear words or suggest them by asterisks in the paper; use phrases like “crap, raving queer, loud-mouthed old fart, all this shit” and others which had been used in the paper in the past 12 months; or use “unacceptably bad language in the newsroom”.

The columnist-restaurant reviewer The Poucher was to be axed, said the memo, because he was politically active in Hartlepool.

“Staff have an incredible feeling of dejection. Why is Smith making these changes if Harry is only on sick leave? There is a feeling of dictatorship at the paper,” said one insider. “All the reporting staff are looking for new jobs. The whole business has completely jaded their view of journalism. Seven of the nine news reporters have sent in applications to join the NUJ.” Johnston said its group editorial policy enshrined the right of editors to edit without interference from general management. The review had been discussed with Blackwood “under well-established company procedures”, it added.

By Jean Morgan

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