How a local newspaper broke the story that shook Parliament to the core…

Newsquest’s new Lancashire & Greater Manchester regional editor Richard Duggan tells how one of his titles was thrown into the spotlight with its scoop that a Tory MP was defecting to Labour…

“Sorry, you will need to speak to the press office” is a sentence that can really set a journalist’s teeth on edge.

I don’t know a single member of the press who doesn’t have a horror story to tell when it comes to getting a comment or a gripe that they have with a public body’s media team.

Bury South MP Christopher Wakeford after defecting to Labour

One of the most frustrating situations of all tends to crop up when the story you’re working on involves a local politician like an MP or councillor.

In times gone by, elected officials would have no issue chatting to local reporters — but the rise of “speak to the press office” culture is becoming more and more common.

But it’s essential that politicians work with and feel able to freely speak to their local newspapers — as the Bury Times found out last week.

The exclusive by Ted Stirzaker on the Bury Times website

The weekly title — and the town of Bury itself — was thrown into the national (and international) spotlight when we broke the exclusive that Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, was defecting to Labour from the Conservatives.

It was certainly not welcome news to Boris Johnson — nor to all of Mr Wakeford’s constituents.

He won the seat in the December 2019 general election by 402 votes, one of the smallest majorities in the country and locals were in two minds about his decision to turn his back on the Prime Minister.

But how did the humble Bury Times, of which I am proud to be editor, get the scoop?

Bury Times editor Richard Duggan on BBC News discussing the defection

The answer is quite simple; Mr Wakeford, his team and even the Labour Party made sure they were working with his, and his constituents’, local newspaper. They ensured we had the statement first, that we were the first publication to share the news in full, because it ultimately mattered to our readers most.

While the defection certainly played a part in the national discussion, particularly how it impacted Boris Johnson, I would argue it was much more important for local voters to be made aware of a decision that affected them first and foremost.

The local mood could be split roughly into camps in the days following the announcement; those who thought Mr Wakeford had done the right thing and were glad to have a Labour MP and those who were angry that they now did not have a Conservative MP.

How the story was splashed on the front page of the Bury Times

The news desk was inundated with calls from media organisations — including Newsnight, 5Live, BBC News and even Dutch national broadcaster NOS — wanting to talk about the story that had made Bury the centre of British politics for the day at least.

People from around the world were suddenly talking about a local newspaper’s story — but that wouldn’t have been the case had Mr Wakeford and his team decided to send out a blanket press release.

My plea to those in local government is don’t be shackled by press officers — local newspapers represent all your constituents, and you shouldn’t be afraid to take our calls and have a working relationship with us.

Like all big news stories, the Bury South MP’s decision (or perhaps gamble is a better word?) will soon no longer be of interest to national titles or broadcasters — but it will continue to be to local people.

And it’ll be the Bury Times, the local paper, that will continue to provide comprehensive coverage of the story. So, watch this space.

  • In 2022, Behind Local News aims to celebrate local journalism in all its forms through our 365 Acts of Local Journalism Project. Lets us know what you think should be included. You can email us here or contact us via Twitter on BehindLocalNews or on Facebook here.

>> See the series so far, here

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