Philip Hirst, until 18 months ago editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle and now its managing director, has not been prepared to accept criticisms of his newspaper’s coverage of race issues in a town that has exploded into riots between Asians, whites and the police.
Hirst, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were editors of the 121-year-old independent newspaper, owned by the family firm of Hirst, Kidd & Rennie, hit out in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today. He accused the programme’s recent report on Asians creating no-go areas in the town and reports of an attack by Asians on a war veteran of creating the starting point for the rioting.
His paper, which has been accused of not giving equal coverage to Asian victims of racial abuse, was petrol-bombed in the riots.
Hirst told Press Gazette: "The problem is, it is very difficult to address amorphous, general complaints without any specific examples about what people are complaining about. If people want to come here and discuss our coverage of anything, they are welcome to do so. They don’t have to chuck a petrol bomb through the window."
The paper was not biased in its coverage, he said, adding: "It would be suicide for any local newspaper to pick and choose which stories it was publishing. We just report what’s happening in Oldham.
"I think the recent events have been kicked off by the BBC Today programme arriving here and doing a brief item on young Asians trying to set up no-go areas. How they reported it, or whether they should or shouldn’t have reported it, is irrelevant. This national coverage of some disaffected part of the population attracted some extremist elements, not from here – from both extremes of the spectrum – and they have been making political capital out of what’s happened during the election campaign."
BBC reporter Barnie Choudhury spent six weeks in Oldham compiling his report and talked to "an incredibly broad range" of people and groups from the area, said a spokeswoman.
She added: "The Today programme put a lot of care and attention into its reporting of the increasing racial tension in Oldham. The report was accurate and not a sensationalised account of a genuine concern. It is ludicrous to blame the ensuing violence on the original report, especially when media interest has increased so substantially and reporting has been so extensive."
Since Hirst’s broadcast he has been besieged by the world’s press, giving interviews to Canadian, Norwegian, German, Belgian and New Zealand journalists and television crews. What he has not had to deal with is any complaint about the paper’s coverage.
He was quoted in his own paper on Monday as saying he was quite willing to talk about any complaints.
"I think we will have to wait for it to die down before we can have any sensible conversation on how they perceive us and what they think is wrong," Hirst said.
"To judge our coverage they would have to buy the paper every night. To pick up one paper and see a story you don’t like and extrapolate that into all our coverage is biased, you are not really judging us fairly."
By Jean Morgan and Martin McNamara