The local newspaper which took back control

It’s a situation journalists across the UK will have been all too familiar with over the past couple of weeks — Conservative MPs trying to avoid passing comment on events at Downing Street.

The Bishop’s Stortford Independent, however, took a different approach when its local MP, Julie Marson, failed to use her fortnightly column to discuss PartyGate, the ongoing saga of lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street.

When Julie submitted a column about trains, rather than transgressions by the prime minister Boris Johnson, the paper used her column space to explain to readers what was happening,

Julie’s office also claimed it was perfectly normal for a columnist to ignore an editor’s instruction for a column too — something which has raised eyebrows across the industry.

The paper told readers, in the space where Julie’s column should be: “Soon after she became MP, we offered Julie Marson her own fortnightly column. Although that irks some of her political opponents, we believe that she should have the opportunity to inform our readers and her constituents of her activities, especially those who do not follow her online.

“In the two years since, we have never told her what to write in her column, until this week and PartyGate.”

In an email to the MP’s office, the Independent asked for the column to focus solely on the issue, in a similar way to a 700-word statement of May 2020 after Dominic Cummings, then the PM’s main advisor, admitted breaking lockdown rules to visit County Durham from London.

At the time, Julie wrote: “The issues at the heart of this matter, of honesty, integrity, respect and decency, threaten to gravely undermine any remnants of public trust, faith and confidence in their political representatives, not just nationally but locally too.”

Yet the column which was submitted talked about trains in Hertford, with no mention of PartyGate.

The paper told readers: “A covering email said: ‘We’ve noted your comment about what you wanted it to be about but take the view that if a paper offers a column slot, then it is to the person given the opportunity to decide what to write about. This is the normal local industry rules too.’”

The paper concluded: “We know that scores of constituents will have emailed her, raising issues warranting a full response, and received nothing beyond an automated acknowledgement of receipt of their emails. We feel you deserve better. Consequently, we are not running her column this week.”

The paper added it had requested a copy of the rules which state a columnist should dictate a newspaper’s content to its editor.

Julie also made front page news — for failing to answer questions on the issue from the paper. A Facebook post last week from the MP said the PM’s involvement was ‘disappointing.’

The paper’s leader column was equally uncomfortable for the MP: “As a policeman’s daughter, a former magistrate and the private secretary to justice secretary Dominic Raab, she understands that those who make the law must not break the law.

“Waiting for the outcome of a parliamentary investigation doesn’t prevent them being clear that any politicians found to have broken the law needs to go.”

Julie hit back on Twitter at the weekend, saying: “Women didn’t get the vote and go into Parliament to be dictated to by anyone, including newspaper editors. Try and get it right next time.

“I have been saying for a week now that I am appalled by what has happened. I fully understand why people are angry. My comments were posted on Facebook.”

  • 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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The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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