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Editors warn of ‘toxic’ attacks on journalists after Dragons’ Den star’s tweets

Helen DalbyRegional editors have warned of “toxic social media pile-ons” against their journalists after a Dragons’ Den star questioned their coverage in a series of tweets.

Deborah Meaden claimed there had been an “interesting lack of local reporting” about the problem of dead sea creatures washing up on North Sea beaches, amid concern it may be linked to works on Teesside’s proposed freeport development.

Posting on Twitter, Ms Meaden specifically questioned the coverage of the Northern Echo and Teesside Live, while simultaneously praising the Yorkshire Post which has recently appointed a reporter to cover the issue.

She further noted what she termed the “healthy” advertising spend of Tees Valley Combined Authority, which is overseeing the freeport development, with Teesside Live publisher Reach plc and Echo owner Newsquest.

But the tweets, which were shared and liked by thousands of people, sparked a backlash from Reach and Newsquest editors who came forward with evidence that they have covered the issue regularly.

Graeme Whitfield, editor of Teesside Live sister daily The Journal, said a “quick Google search” had revealed 35 Teesside Live articles on the subject over the last few months, as well as more than 30 in the Northern Echo.

Reach’s audience and content director for the North-East Helen Dalby, pictured, wrote: “As well as being unfounded, the narrative developing about the coverage by the Teesside Gazette and the Northern Echo is also causing toxic social media pile-ons directed at reporters simply doing their jobs.”

Nick Gullon, head of print at the Newsquest-owned Echo, added: “Helen is right. Not only is this false narrative untrue and unfair, it is resulting in nasty, vicious attacks on journalists who are working extremely hard under immense pressures to simply do their jobs.”

Sophie Barley, editor of the Reach-owned Newcastle daily The Chronicle, told Ms Meaden: “There is no lack of reporting on it at all.

“The two local websites Teesside Live and Northern Echo have covered this topic throughout. Teesside Live actually live blogged a hearing on the issue at the House of Commons.”

In response to the claim about advertising spend, Echo editor Gavin Foster wrote: “For clarity, I would wager there isn’t a local newspaper in this country that doesn’t have local authorities and other public organisations spending money on advertising.

“Happy to send you yesterday’s latest on [Freeport developer] Teesworks.”

Ms Meaden later shared Gavin’s post after accepting his point. She also thanked Sophie for her post, saying: “Thanks Sophie… I did correct this earlier but too late for the edit button!! Great about the live blogging…

The latest spat comes after Tory MP Simon Clarke and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen publicly criticised Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson for following up a story tip about dead sea creatures washing up on the coast.

The issue prompted James to hire investigative journalist Leigh Jones to focus on Teesside earlier this month.

James also hit out at the TVCA’s ad-spend in a tweet yesterday in response to the figures posted by Ms Meaden, showing that it spent £49,485 advertising in Reach publications between 2018 and 2022 and £39,673 in the same period with Newsquest.

Helen told HTFP: “We’re proud of our extensive reporting on Teesworks and also the marine die-offs, and our dedicated page on Teesworks shows our coverage on these important topics from recent weeks and months.

“These are topics we are committed to covering and we do so regularly, accurately and independently.”

When approached for comment by HTFP, a spokesperson for Ms Meaden said:  “Deborah was specific to the local papers highlighted and not generally and not regionals. ”

He added that she had also “specifically praised” the coverage of the Yorkshire Post on the issue, having posted on Twitter about the Leeds-based daily’s “quality reporting”.