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Editor ups stakes in battle with Tories as investigative journalist hired

Leigh JonesA regional daily editor has raised the stakes in his battle with local Tories by hiring a new investigative journalist with a specific focus on their patch.

The Yorkshire Post has taken on Leigh Jones with a brief to examine environmental and political issues relating to the Teesside Freeport and surrounding areas, including North Yorkshire and its coastline.

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

Mr Clarke – a Cabinet minister under Boris Johnson – accused James of “deeply irresponsible journalism” before the Post had even published anything about the issue, while Mr Houchen further accused the Leeds-based daily of reporting “guff”.

Leigh, pictured, previously worked for Newsquest titles The National Wales and the Northern Echo, leaving the latter last month.

He has also had previous run-ins with Mr Houchen, revealing he was blocked by him on Twitter prior to joining the Darlington-based Echo and claiming the mayor’s team also blocked his anonymous Facebook account “pre-emptively”.

Leigh, who formerly worked in the music industry before joining The National Wales last year, told HTFP: “I changed careers to become a journalist in order to hold the powerful to account and I’m incredibly grateful to James Mitchinson and the Yorkshire Post for providing me with the sort of opportunity that is sadly all too rare in our industry.

“Teesside is an incredible place with massive potential, and it’s only right that the decisions being made there are held to the light to ensure they stand up to scrutiny.”

Middlesbrough Labour MP Andy McDonald recently used Parliamentary privilege to claim in the House of Commons that there was “industrial-scale corruption” at Teesworks, the company running the freeport.

Both Mr Houchen and Teesworks have denied the claim.

In a blog about the issue last week, Leigh wrote: “When I first reported on the freeport in my first few weeks at the Northern Echo I approached Houchen’s office for comment.

“As well as a typically long-winded response from Houchen (he often uses the third person as if he’s fantasising about addressing the Speaker in the House of Commons), his team had passed on my details to the area’s local Tory MPs, as well as to a representative of the private businessmen who own shares in Teesworks — Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney.

“I know this because these additional parties sent unsolicited statements to me before my story had been published.

“Since that moment in early January I struggled to get responses from Tees Valley Combined Authority’s press team for even the most mundane of stories, and I later learned that my rarely-used dummy Facebook account had been pre-emptively blocked from Houchen’s page (he had blocked me on Twitter before I’d even joined the Echo).”

The row involving the Post, Mr Houchen and Mr Clarke started after James appealed in March for readers to provide verification of photographs purportedly showing thousands of mussels and other dead sea creatures washed up on the coastline between the towns of Redcar and Marske.

The plea prompted “hysterical” attacks on Twitter from the two Conservatives, with Mr Clarke’s criticism being liked by the official Conservative Party account, as well as MPs Mark Jenkinson and Craig Whittaker and Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies.

James announced Leigh’s appointment in his regular editor’s newsletter to Post readers last week.

He wrote: “In recent weeks I have had my interest piqued by the inexplicably hysterical reaction by certain politicians on Teesside whenever the Yorkshire Post – Mayor Houchen described the award-winning work of Post writers as ‘guff’ – has taken an interest in what exactly is and has been going on up there.

“MP for Middlesbrough and South East Cleveland Simon Clarke continues to flirt with me on Twitter to the point where I this week replied to yet another unsolicited message he sent to me, thanking him heartily for allowing me to live rent-free in his head.

“Well, thanks are due to those two esteemed public servants in particular because without their fascinating overreactions to the flimsiest – so far – of questions, I wouldn’t have hired Leigh Jones who will join the Yorkshire Post in the coming days, charged by me with holding feet to the fire of anyone with their fingers in Teesworks pies.”

HTFP has approached both Mr Houchen and Mr Clarke for a comment.