Hale to tell inquiry about an editor's life at Johnston

Hale, will tell commission about working at Bowdler’s Johnston Press

Former Johnston Press editor Don Hale, who won universal acclaim for his campaign to free Stephen Downing, is to give evidence to the Competition Commission on Monday about his treatment by the company.

The commission is investigating the company’s proposed bid for eight Trinity Mirror titles in the Midlands and Hale will be giving his views of Johnston based on his 16 years as editor of the Matlock Mercury.

During his time with the company, Hale had several run-ins with management about interference in editorial matters, staffing and his opposition to a plan for central subbing.

He left Johnston in August to join Trinity Mirror’s Sunday Mercury. The NUJ will be supporting Hale’s submission and Colin Bourne, the union’s former northern organiser who is now a QC, will appear with him.

The commission has been given an extension of eight weeks to complete its report into the deal and make a recommendation. The Department of Trade & Industry says this is because Johnston has submitted "important new information".

Hale was asked to speak to the commission after an article about him by Nick Cohen appeared in the New Statesman. Headlined "The hero they tried to muzzle", it castigated Johnston for not supporting the campaign to free Downing.

The commission contacted Cohen to ask how to get in touch with Hale. It has been rigorously inquiring into any monopoly position that would be created in the Midlands should Johnston be allowed to buy the titles. The commission has said it will be looking at whether the deal would lead to reduced editorial content and diversity of opinion.

Johnston has repudiated claims in the Cohen article in a letter to the New Statesman by chief executive Tim Bowdler. He said local management difficulties had never affected Hale’s freedom to edit and denied a claim that at one time he was told to apologise to police.

Bowdler was not specific about what the "important new information" was that had caused the commission to extend its deadline. He told Press Gazette: "We have produced an enormous amount of information on many, many aspects of the market and how it operates; of the competitive nature of it; of the breadth of the market in terms of other media.

"I’m pleased they are going for an extension because it is better that they really review the thing thoroughly and come up with a well considered view of the market rather than rush a report."

The commission now has until 19 April to make its report but is hopeful it can do so by the end of March. The original deadline was 22 February.

Hale’s book on the Downing affair, A Town Without Pity, is due out on 21 March.

Johnston is understood to have asked to see a manuscript before publication but the request has been resisted by publisher Random House.

By Jean Morgan and Jon Slattery

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