Peter decided to go public with Mr Wharton’s position on the Echo in an editorial today, saying he had been told to inform his reporters not to call the Stockton South MP over the Darlington-based title’s “continual political bias”.
In the piece Peter admitted the paper had sided “on balance” with Labour at the last election, but added it had also welcomed Mr Wharton’s appointment to the ministerial role and printed a front page editorial in which the Conservative had outlined the benefits of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative.
Wrote Peter: “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.”
The Echo recently criticised Mr Wharton’s decision not to attend an emergency House of Commons debate on the steel crisis on Teesside, an issue on which the paper has campaigned.
In light of the editorial’s publication, he has now called on his constituents to avoid buying the paper altogether in a message on his Facebook page.
He wrote: “Now this long lasting disagreement has been brought to the fore I would again ask that any constituent with a concern about anything they read in the Echo please feel free to contact me directly. Or even better, don’t read it.
“There are other ways to get more balanced local news.”
Mr Wharton, whose official title is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for the Northern Powerhouse, told HTFP his policy of not speaking to the Echo comes after a “fractious” relationship with the paper over a number of years.
He said: “I recognise local papers will not always print things I like.
“My two main local papers are the (Teesside) Gazette and the Northern Echo. Both have had a go at me but I find the Gazette to be balanced and fair.
“I find the Northern Echo to be somewhat the opposite.”
Mr Wharton claimed he had been cropped out of photographs by the Echo, not named in stories where Labour MPs had been given credit and that he had been subjected to a “sustained campaign” against him in the run-up to May’s General Election.
He added: “This is not something that’s happened overnight, this is at least four years.
“They’re not always unfair but the prevalence of unfair reporting and attacks on me over a long period of time means I don’t believe it’s worth engaging with the Echo, and that’s a real shame.”
In his editorial, Peter said he found Mr Wharton’s accusations of political bias “ironic” because he has recently dealt with complaints from Independent and Liberal Democrat supporters about his decision to give Richmondshire’s Conservative MP, Rishi Sunak, his own weekly column in the Echo’s Newsquest sister title, the Darlington & Stockton Times.
He concluded: “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.”