'We won't give PM an easy ride,' warn regional editors

Satchwell: ‘less interested in spin’

Regional editors have fired a warning shot across Tony Blair’s bow over reports that he intends using them to get the Labour message across.

The reports come after weeks of intense criticism of the Government from national newspapers and the fear is that Blair regards the regional papers as a "soft touch".

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said regional newspapers existed outside the "Westminster Village" and were less interested in stories of spin.

"You can understand why the Prime Minister might want to talk to regional newspapers," said Satchwell. "But every day, regional newspapers take up the cudgels on behalf of their readers, on issues like crime and transport. The idea they will give him an easy ride is total nonsense."

The Northern Echo covers Blair’s Sedgefield constituency and has enjoyed more access to him than most other regionals. Deputy editor Colin Tapping said that had not stopped the paper being critical of the Prime Minister.

"If they are going to talk to the regional press to avoid criticism then I think they are seriously mistaken," said Tapping. "But what they might get is a more balanced and objective agenda." Blair has already started his regional offensive in Ipswich, where he held a briefing with several local editors a few weeks ago. Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover said the regional press would give Blair a fairer hearing than he might receive from parts of Fleet Street, but they were not a pushover.

He pointed out that during last year’s Ipswich by-election, Labour "tried to spin all kinds of things in the newspaper", including delivering a hand-written letter to the paper in which Blair urged readers to vote Labour. In the letter, the PM misspelt tomorrow as "toomorrow" and the next day’s front page reported it under the headline "Toony Blair".

"He doesn’t get an easy ride from us by any means," said Pickover.

Western Mail editor Neil Fowler said his newspaper was unlikely to be given any special access to Blair because of the headaches it had given him over the Welsh Assembly and Mittal affair.

He said that readers wouldn’t fall for it if Blair suddenly started granting interviews to small regional papers with no experience of dealing with major politicians.

Fowler said: "You can’t get politicians going round trying to get an easy time of it. Politicians should be big enough and tough enough to take on the toughest interviews."

This is Local Newspaper Week and the regional press has received an endorsement from another source – the Queen. In a statement, she said: "It seems to me that people need a sense of community, a sense of belonging, now more than ever, and that regional newspapers help to meet that need."


By Martin McNamara

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