The editor of Belfast daily the News Letter has said messages of support in the wake of an apparent call to boycott the title by a top political aide have served as a “vindication” of its news coverage.
His comment comes after Brian Haslett, who is understood to be an assistant to Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, used a boycott hashtag in a tweet targeted at the paper’s political editor, Sam McBride.
Haslett, who accused McBride of writing “bias tripe”, is believed to have been referring to the News Letter’s coverage of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, which ran on its front page.
He included a picture of the Belfast Telegraph in his tweet, posted on 31 December, which did not carry the RHI story on the front, calling it a “real front page with real issues”.
The RHI scheme, which was brought in by Foster in 2012, could reportedly cost public services in Northern Ireland as much as £600 million over the next 20 years.
Haslett’s tweet was “liked” by Democratic Unionist Party figures – including serving Northern Ireland Assembly members Gary Middleton and Phillip Logan – forcing the party (which is led by Foster) to issue a statement denying the boycott was an official party position.
After news of the boycott call was posted on the News Letter’s Facebook account, it produced a large number of comments that were supportive of the paper, according to the title.
Editor Alistair Bushe said “I have been greatly encouraged by the messages of support we have received over the last few days.
“While it was disappointing to see anyone call for a boycott of our paper the reaction from our readers, and from across the political spectrum, has been a vindication of how we have covered this hugely significant story.
“We have in no way been biased in our coverage but our reporting team, and in particular political editor Sam McBride, have merely been determined in attempting to give our readers the full facts of an issue affecting everyone in Northern Ireland.
“Along with some other media outlets, our team has demonstrated some outstanding journalism.”
In response to whether the party endorsed the boycott message from Haslett, a DUP spokesman said: “The views posted on Twitter by one individual do not represent the party’s position. People should make their own decisions about how they receive their news.”
The Johnston Press-owned News Letter has an average daily circulation of 16,396 copies, according to the latest ABC figures.