ALL editors face accusations of political bias. The claims fly from all directions – Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP, you name it – especially at election time. I’ve always taken the view that if they all think we’re unfair, we must be getting it more or less right, and I do my best to rise above the pettiness of it all.
But, having resisted the temptation for quite a while, it is time to go public with the position taken by Northern Powerhouse minister James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, who refuses point blank to have anything to do with The Northern Echo. He refuses to take our calls or provide us with answers to our questions and has told me to inform my reporters not to call him. When I wrote to ask for an explanation on October 4, he replied in writing that it was due to “the Echo’s weekly attacks on me” and the paper’s “continual political bias”.
The timing was hugely ironic because, that week, I happened to be dealing with complaints from Independent and Liberal Democrat supporters about my decision to give Richmondshire’s Conservative MP, Rishi Sunak, his own weekly column in our sister title, the Darlington & Stockton Times.
Naturally, I asked Mr Wharton for evidence of the “weekly attacks” we’d launched, and duly received back links to a single issue – the recent controversy over Mr Wharton not attending an emergency Commons debate on the steel crisis. Mr Wharton had responded to criticism from North-East Labour MPs by tweeting: “On my way up to Teesside actually doing things rather than showboating.”
The Northern Echo’s editorial comment relating to the row said: “To suggest that an emergency debate on the future of so many jobs is ‘showboating’ isn’t clever. It’s disrespectful to the House of Commons – and to the community at risk of a devastating economic blow.”
So that’s it – the “evidence” of The Northern Echo’s weekly attacks on James Wharton. What the MP didn’t send me were the links to The Northern Echo’s previous editorial, welcoming his appointment as Northern Powerhouse minister as a positive move, nor did he mention the full page of editorial we’d given him to write in glowing terms about the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse initiative.
What Mr Wharton fails to grasp is that criticism is part of being a politician. It was opposition MPs who called him “pathetic” over the emergency steel debate, not The Northern Echo, and the region’s other news organisations also published the criticism, not just us.
Since then, we’ve covered last week’s withering attack on Mr Wharton by Middlesbrough Football Club chairman Steve Gibson, who took to The Times, no less, to call the Stockton South MP “a clown” and “a joke” over his handling of the steel crisis. What were we supposed to do? Ignore the fact that one of Teesside’s most respected and influential entrepreneurs had launched such an outspoken, national attack? Of course not – and, again, the other regional titles covered it too.
What was important was to apply balance to our coverage by giving Mr Wharton the opportunity to give his perspective. As always, his response was the standard “I won’t comment to the Echo due to its weekly attacks on me.”.
We might easily have left it at that but we didn’t – we afforded him balance by taking the quotes he’d given to the Press Association. We published his rejection of Mr Gibson’s attack, pointing out that the Boro chairman had never spoken to him, and his declaration that Teesside was doing well.
Over the 17 years of my editorship, we’ve criticised – and praised – politicians of all colours when the need has arisen.
It is true that The Northern Echo’s editorial comment sided, on balance, with the Labour Party at the last election but it was hardly a ringing endorsement rammed down the throats of our readers on the front page. It was a thoughtful view, reflecting on the disproportionate public sector cuts the North-East had faced during David Cameron’s first term in power while repeating the doubts we’d regularly expressed about Ed Miliband’s leadership. When a newspaper expresses an opinion on every other publication day, it would seem odd to me not to express an opinion on perhaps the most crucial day in five years.
Since the election, The Northern Echo has urged our local authorities to come together behind the Northern Powerhouse initiative and campaign for devolved powers, accepting that the price to be paid was elected mayors. Oh, and I’ve resisted the opposition calls to stop Mr Sunak’s column in our sister paper, because I think it’s an important part of the political balance we strive to achieve across all of our titles.
None of this is intended as one of our “weekly attacks” on Mr Wharton, but there is only so long you can go on trying to engage with someone while keeping quiet about a prominent politician’s official position of non co-operation.
In my view, it is important that The Northern Echo’s readers know that, when articles relating to Mr Wharton don’t include a comment from him, it has never been for the want of trying. It is important for them to know that the Northern Powerhouse minister has blacklisted the only paper with “Northern” in its title – a title which has championed the north for nearly 150 years and was recently credited with playing an important role in the campaign to bring the Hitachi train-building factory to the region.
James Wharton is an ambitious politician – but heaven help him if he ever has to deal with a truly hostile press.