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Downing Street link to editor's leave is denied

Downing Street has denied claims that the Prime Minister intervened in a dispute between MP Peter Mandelson and the editor of his local newspaper, the Hartlepool Mail.

And the Mail’s owners, Johnston Press, said it found the idea that political pressure could influence editorial policy or employment of editors “offensive”.

Editor Harry Blackwood’s sick leave has resulted in a flurry of press interest in the situation, thought to have been brought about by worsening relations between the Mail and the MP.

The Mail was accused of giving preferential treatment to a man in a monkey costume during the elections for a Hartlepool mayor – the monkey eventually defeating the Labour candidate.

The vote saw Hartlepool United mascot Stuart Drummond swept to power ahead of hot Labour favourite Leo Gillen – and as soon as a monkey had been declared the first elected mayor, the Hartlepool Mail was blamed for the main political parties’ electoral demise.

Mr Mandelson immediately said news coverage of the election had put hurdles in the way of the Labour hopeful and provided a “fair wind” for the winner.

The Independent newspaper today claimed that Tony Blair had made a discreet phone call to Johnston in an attempt to get Harry removed from his post. Johnston denies any contact from the PM.

A Downing Street spokesman said last night: “The Prime Minister has many issues to focus on and the editorship of the Hartlepool Mail is not one of them.”

The popular editor was supported by staff who last week turned up wearing black in protest at what they thought were plans to suspend him.

And aside from the Independent article, the Mail On Sunday carried a feature yesterday, and Observer staff were camped in the town last week working on the story. The Sunday Telegraph has also made inquiries.

Harry, (47), who has been editor for three years, was unavailable for comment.

An insider said: “He is a loose cannon but he’s fiercely proud of his town and his newspaper.

“Johnston Press knew what they were getting when they appointed him.”

Johnston Press issued a statement last night saying: “The issues raised specifically by Mr Mandelson have been fully investigated by local editorial management and have been rejected.

“The company categorically rejects 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 plc, either in respect of the Hartlepool Mail or indeed on any other matter. Quite simply, any such suggestion is completely and utterly wrong.

“Furthermore, the company totally dismisses the idea that political pressure from any quarter or the pursuit of business or political advantage could influence its approach to editorial policy or the employment of its editors. Such a view is both reprehensible and offensive.

“The issues in Hartlepool are solely a reflection of wide-ranging editorially-based concerns which have emerged over a period of some months.”

As well as duties as editor, Harry writes a weekly column in his newspaper about life in the north east, and life at the Mail, which Holdthefrontpage has also carried for the past two years.

Do you have a story about the regional press? Ring 0116 227 3122/3121, or
e-mail pastill@nep.co.uk