Monkey business in the north

Observations on Peter Mandelson

Harry Blackwood, the editor of the Hartlepool Mail, is on "sick leave". He is currently considering two job offers, one of them as a fitness instructor. New Labour must hope he doesn't take it, because it would keep him in his home town.

Blackwood's paper is read by the constituents of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. The widespread view in the north-east is that he is being forced out of his job because of complaints by the two local MPs. Both deny that they exerted pressure on Roger Parry, the chairman of Johnston Press, which owns the Hartlepool Mail.

Why should Parry care about Blair and Mandelson? The answer is that Parry is also UK chief executive of Clear Channel, a US media conglomerate. Both it and Johnston Press have an interest in the Communications Bill now going through parliament. Blackwood, who kept a dossier, says Mandelson threatened to intervene in that legislative process if his head was not delivered on a plate.

This does not augur well for new Labour, especially as the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who successfully pursued Mandelson over the Hinduja brothers, is now on the case.

By most accounts, Blackwood's lively editorship had been a success. Tim Bowdler, Johnston's chief executive, has confirmed that Mandelson contacted him and Parry, and said that his complaints about the Mail's coverage "have been fully investigated and have not been upheld". The long-time local Labour Party president, Keith Fisher, says he told an investigating Johnston executive that Blackwood had always treated him fairly.

When Mandelson was forced to resign from the cabinet for a second time, the Mail asked readers their reaction. The article bore the headline: "We've had enough". Fair comment to most people, but not to the PM's pal apparently. Later, readers questioned the result of a referendum to set up a directly elected mayoralty. This was a Mandelson-backed new Labour initiative, and in neighbouring Sedgefield it was rejected. But in Hartlepool, there was a small majority in favour and the Mail reported the controversy over a surprising 9 per cent of ballot papers that were ruled invalid.

Then came the mayoral elections themselves. H'Angus the Monkey, an independent candidate, defeated the businessman Leo Gillen, the official Labour candidate and Mandelson's pal. The Mail's front page said: "Monkey is our Mayor . . . and Mandelson says it's the Mail's fault". The paper reported how the MP had berated Blackwood's deputy, Neil Hunter, after the count, in effect blaming the Mail for the result. It was not the first time, as many reporters know, that Mandelson had berated a journalist.

"We don't have a policy," Parry told Johnston executives and editors last year, "on the desirability or otherwise of electing spoof jungle animals as the mayor of industrial towns in the north-east. But there is a danger. What happens if one has axes to grind or a vendetta to pursue? We have a very strong view of the way the editorial job should be done."

Hartlepool Mail staff now know what this means. One said: "Staff have an in-credible feeling of dejection. There is a feeling of dictatorship at the paper. All the reporting staff are looking for new jobs."

Blackwood was born near the Mail offices, his children are in local schools and his wife is a ward manager at the town's hospital. His brutal and very public rem- oval will do new Labour no favours. Blackwood has many friends, and the circle is growing rapidly. Few are closer than his fellow fitness enthusiast Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough, the ex-policeman who swept aside new Labour on the same night that H'Angus so riled Mandelson in Hartlepool. This pair can locate better than most the bodies buried in a region known for its political intrigue.

And what is the other job being offered to the angry, ousted (but hitherto little-known) editor? Why, it is that of national newspaper columnist. Well done, Peter. Who's a clever boy then?

John Booth was Hartlepool's Genuine Labour candidate in the 200l general election. He is currently writing Creating the Truth: tales of new Labour

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, America is no longer invincible