Our MP became known as Porn MP. That was just the start of a crazy few weeks

Neil Parish, the former MP for Tiverton and Honiton

It was a by-election which ended up being all about the prime minister. But what was it like to try and cover the Tiverton & Honiton byelection for local readers? Lewis Clarke, DevonLive’s reporter in the area, found out:

An orange dawn has broken in Tiverton & Honiton, an historic by-election win for the Lib Dems to topple the Conservative stronghold; and the first time in the 33 years since birth, I’ve lived in a constituency which wasn’t blue.

The region has never seen so many satellite news gathering trucks, so many broadcasting heavyweights, and so many front pages; from the moment Neil Parish was condemned as the man sat watching pornography despite searching for tractors, to a Lib Dem prop to which Sir Ed Davey walked through, saying it’s time to show Boris the door; I very much doubt, as a reporter for the print title of the Tiverton Gazette, and its online counterpart, DevonLive, we’ll see something quite like this again.

We all knew from front pages that an MP had been caught looking at porn in the Commons. At first, most people in the area thought nothing of it. Another bit of Tory controversy alongside the conveyor belt of Boris inbox after Partygate, the North Shropshire election and so forth.

Then, one sunny afternoon while reporting on the opening of a new restaurant in Cullompton, my phone lit up. To the shock of everyone in the constituency, Neil Parish, the MP for 12 years, had been outed as the soon to be dubbed ‘Porn MP’.

A forty-minute drive up to his home, where the man himself had yet to make an appearance. As I went to see who was at the family farm in Somerset, The Times came out from his house, where his wife Sue had been talked to them. After 12-years a local reporter, you get to know your local MP, and after years of attending events, being there for all his election victories, you get to become friends with not just the MP, but the family too.

“You better come in” she said as the reporters from The Times, left. “Neil is doing a constituency surgery in Honiton; he should be home soon.”

We anxiously waited as the world’s press gathered outside his house. We chatted about the whole awkward mess the Parish household now found themselves in, until the heart dropping moment Neil walked in the door, to not only greet his wife for the first time since the news broke, but also to find the local reporter sipping a glass of water there too.

A tense atmosphere, a shocked couple, and a lot that needed to be sorted out. After Neil had sent a brief statement out via the Conservative party machine, I asked: “I know this is a difficult time for you, but I’m here as a reporter, and I need you to give me something.” And with that, we headed outside for the first interview he gave to anyone, only to be pounced upon by the other national media in his front garden afterwards.

He quit the following day.

Several weeks after, and a couple of one-to-one interviews with Neil, all eyes were on the by-election. The Lib Dems launched their campaign to much media fanfare while the rest of the contenders went about it in a way in which you wouldn’t even notice there was a campaign at all.

My main concern was whether I’d be at the election itself with a holiday to Cyprus booked from June 8, to June 18. Not only a holiday, but not something I could get out of as it was also my wedding taking place too — and I had already delayed it from a fortnight to ten days to enable me to cover the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

The day before leaving the campaign behind, I had an important full day of training (which probably couldn’t have come at a worse time), as well as the election ramping up.

I had already sat in front of the likes of Priti Patel, Oliver Dowden and George Eustice the previous week, as well as Ed Davey visiting on numerous occasions and now the national media were gearing up for a press onslaught on Mid Devon.

On the day when I should be writing my vows, and helping my fiancé to pace I had BBC Radio 4’s Today programme speaking to me at 6.50am, an evening interview for the following day’s Good Morning Britain, and Radio 5 Live with a slot for me on the drivetime show; it seems there’s no better way to gauge the opinion of a town than to ask the local journalist covering the area.

BBC Radio Scotland got in touch the following day, but I was on a plane at the time somewhere over Serbia.

A so, after ten days of getting married and fat, I returned to a baptism of fire with the election taking place only days away. Ten days away which had seen Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and many others in the area, as well as more visits from Ed Davey to town; although due to my absence coverage of these visits was sparse. A new rival to the Tiverton Gazette did try and make the most of my time sipping cocktails and sunning myself.

However, I had landed, and there was no time to spare. Pretty much straight off the plane, and then around town with vox-pops, gauging opinion, were the Lib Dems really going to pull off a huge upset?

Election day itself then, and with my ten-month old whisked away to his gran’s for the night, I was able to try and get some sleep planned — that was until a 9am vote call for the Conservative candidate (of which I was apparently the only one invited) followed by 10.10am for Lib Dems in Uffculme, with a few more photographers.

I have never been so nervous about covering an election night since my first one in 2010. This was going to be off the scale, and with the eyes of the national press on the story, it was down to the local press to up its game to stand out.

Thankfully my suitcase was not up in the attic, and with experience of previous elections proving you can’t send videos and large files via the bog-standard work laptop, it was time to try something different. After deliberation, I packed my hulking great £2k desktop PC I built during lockdown which filled the entire suitcase and with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, headed to the count to set up. To my relief I had two plugs, a decent hotspot connection off my phone, and was set for the night with my pack of Munchies and some bottles of Pepsi.

A problem though, with so many press in attendance, was that Mid Devon District Council had implemented a system where only so many could be in the counting room at any one time. Photos and videos were taken where the action was in the counting room, but to return to the press room where my hub was located, I had to give up the precious pass to let me in, as it would soon be snatched by another eager reporter, and you’d have to wait your turn at the back of the queue again. It was a challenging balancing act all night.

Time moved quickly, and after getting interviews with the candidates and setting the scenes to post on the live blog, things slowed down. No sign of the Tory, Labour or Lib Dem candidate.

The most exciting thing to happen during the small hours was a bat flying around the press room — and with 23 retweets, 4,683 views, this soon became a hook for the followers on Twitter I would acquire throughout the evening as I happen to be in the right place at the right time to get it on camera. I also happen to have my speedy desktop beside me too, so no hanging around for this piece of breaking news.

The night continued, and the national press looked for angles to keep them with something to say during the evening. Cue Sky News who, after a brief chat about how it had been locally, decided to shove me on camera at 2am to discuss the moment Neil Parish got home. A fierce line of questioning ‘why was a reporter in his house’ and such, before doing a more sedate bit with BBC Radio Devon on the huge amount of leaflets that had been posted — all of which I had taken to the count.

Shortly after 2am, and only four hours after the polls had closed the writing was on the wall, when at 2.22am, Ed Davey sent a tweet to suggest that the Lib Dems had won. A bold statement and one which nobody in the hall took lightly.

More commotion as at around 3.30am the Conservative candidate arrived. Many of the press were waiting for her at this point, and we already knew the result. I managed to get in a good spot for her arrival, and she quickly bolted past me, and the other waiting press, and into a room marked ‘media interviews’ before asking me, who had snook in, ‘are you allowed to be in here’?

At this point, time was moving swiftly on to the declaration, and the video of her doing that had to wait as I had to bolt across to the press room, grab my mobile and begin a live video, picking up from Helen being in a dance studio, to the Lib Dem candidate’s heroic welcome, and the count itself — filming this on two cameras in case the live video suddenly lost signal.

With the declaration and after a jostle for places to get into a good spot, it was clear the national press had their story, and did not wait around to hear the other candidates make their speeches. Labour, Green and For Britain could barely be heard among the hubbub but as local reporters, and running the Facebook Live, we made sure to take some interest. The Tory candidate, meanwhile, nowhere to be seen after leaving via the back door.

And that was that, history made, and time to file the last remaining bits, and get the videos sent to the morning teams to transcribe ahead of publication, while I could do a quick interview with Times Radio, before going home and getting some sleep at 7am.

After a brief sleep, up again for more media scrums with a huge press event in the town with more orange Lib Dem signs than ever seen in the town before, followed by doing another vox pop with reaction in the town, and then finally, another live interview, this time with the BBC News channel.

Later that evening… back to good old fashioned community reporting with a prom, and a weekend event of Armed Forces Day, where it was nice to once again be the only press member there, and not have dozens of other cameras all trying to get in the way!

  • 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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