‘If we are to publish anything, it needs to be a balanced, legally-sound news story’

THE QUOTE IS FROM AN EMAIL, sent by the Echo’s editor Martin McNeil, to Councillor Bill Sharp, refusing to print the local politician’s letter addressing a number of ‘questionable and at worst libellous’ statements being made by our local MP, Bob Spink.

Bill’s letter was an attempt to publicly address the contents of various emails and press releases being disseminated by the MP – which he is unable to do without a public platform.

In his letter, Bill corrects the MP’s version of the ‘facts,’ stated in press releases on his website – aimed at attacking Bill’s political standing in the community and the Conservative Party.

‘I am not, nor ever have been, the Campaign Manager of Rebecca Harris the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate,’ Bill says.

‘The MP [Bob Spink] has made various allegations against me, either in his name or, as he puts it, “on behalf of constituents,” whom he never names.

‘I have not been found guilty of any of the charges he has ever alleged and, indeed, the last allegation was made when I was not even a Councillor and therefore not liable to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

‘I am appealing against the various allegations and judgement recently made against me, which resulted in a six-month suspension from my role as a Councillor at Castle Point Borough Council.’

Bill ends by saying: ‘He [Spink] has recently sent an email to his list demanding that the Conservative Party leadership meets him in Castle Point to discuss various matters – most of which seem to relate to me. I would doubt that the leadership would even know me; but, as this is specific to me and my limited role in Castle Point politics, I would welcome the opportunity to debate publicly with this man.

‘This would enable me to state facts that have thus far been hidden – and respond to the allegations he continues to make about me.’

In his email, McNeil provides three reasons for refusing to publish:-

Many readers would not understand the letter without more context being provided.

Spink would demand a right of reply, in which he’d say things you would not like (and might, in turn, demand a right of reply to…)

Bob might attempt to sue for defamation on the basis that you are accusing him of abusing his position as an MP to attack you. The chance of significant damages might be increased if it could be shown that you were writing with malice (ie you have a personal axe to grind).

McNeil ends his reasons with this final statement: ‘If we are to publish anything, it needs to be a balanced, legally-sound news story. I’m sure you are confident everything you have written is true, but I’m afraid the buck stops with me and I’m not in a position to prove the accusations you make in your letter.’

Does McNeil’s argument hold water?..

Well, it is interesting that, in his final statement on the matter, McNeil takes refuge in the legal keep of any newspaper editor: ‘I’m not in a position to prove the accusations you make.’

But for any editor worth their monthly salary, it is that position which is always faced at the beginning of any story. Editors, journalists and reporters are paid to discover the truth and publish it. That is the raison d’être of any newspaper. Maybe the staff at the Echo should get off their butts and start producing some proper journalism.

McNeil says: ‘If we are to publish anything, it needs to be a balanced, legally-sound news story.’ But that is not the case regarding the Echo’s piece headlined: ‘Sorry David Cameron… you can’t hold your election speech here,’ which the Echo has written-up from one of those Spink releases that Bill Sharp is referring to.

In that piece, the newspaper echoes Spink’s spin regarding Cameron being ‘snubbed’ by SEEVIC; but it does not explain that the reason why that college could not accommodate a political meeting is that its Board of Trustees has placed a ban on that establishment being used to hold any political meetings. The ban, it is understood, was put in place to prevent the college from having to accommodate political meetings by the likes of the BNP.

The piece is completely devoid of balance. Indeed, if readers compare the Echo piece with Spink’s press release, it can be seen how the Echo has bent over backwards to ensure Spink’s spin is published – despite their unwillingness to reproduce the MP’s other statements that might prove a legal problem.

McNeil says: ‘Many readers would not understand the letter without more context being provided.’ But is that not the job of a newspaper? It says much of the Echo’s coverage of ‘local news’ that its readers have not been kept informed of the Spink/Sharp issue and would therefore not understand Bill’s letter.

McNeil says: ‘Spink would demand a right of reply, in which he’d say things you would not like (and might, in turn, demand a right of reply to…).’

What inside knowledge does McNeil have that allows him to predict Spink’s response in that way? Besides, any editor knows that controversy sells newspapers. And it is a newspaper’s duty to allow all its readers’ views to be aired. What on earth is the problem of printing a series of ‘right to replies’ in the Letters section or providing an editorial perspective?

Perhaps McNeil’s next statement provides a clue. He says: ‘Bob might attempt to sue for defamation on the basis that you are accusing him of abusing his position as an MP to attack you. The chance of significant damages might be increased if it could be shown that you were writing with malice (ie you have a personal axe to grind).’

It echoes that original statement, made by one of the Echo reporters, in which it was stated that : ‘We have a legal problem when it comes to printing anything about Spink.’

It appears that nothing has changed – and residents still have no option but to read only Spink’s spin in their local newspaper.

Other views, it seems, have no place in the biased Echo’s columns…

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4 Responses

  1. Presumeably we can assume that it is Martin McNeil who Spink is referring to regarding chairing the media event he has apparently requested David Cameron attend.

    Whats the story there then? The word corruption inexpicably comes to my mind

  2. I am delighted that, within our area, we have at least one investigative journalist who allows some of us to get our comments regarding the excessive spink spin. I am sure that the man Spink is a billy liar and, like the ficticious star, he believes all he says. Thank god we dont believe him and indeed more and more people are reaching that conclusion. I just wish he would say certain things he says in the house, where he is guarded by parliamentary privilige, outside parliament where he is not. He seems to be getting more manic by the day with the content he sends to his e-mail list..

    Roll on the 6th May.

  3. I have had some problems getting letters published. I have always presumed that this is my fault and I normally revisit what I have written with a view to presenting better material next time. Perhaps Bill Sharp should look again at what he has written with a view to producing something acceptable to the Echo editor.

    I would also add that none of us has a right to be published, and I am always grateful when my efforts are thus rewarded.

    Mind you, if Bill feels aggrieved, he should see the situation from the Labour standpoint – we have felt for years that the press in general in Essex has been less than balanced.

    • You may not have a legal ‘right’ to have your letter published, Julian; but an editor has a duty to ensure all readers’ views are expressed in a representative manner.

      That is especially true in politics where the readership relies upon the newspaper to be kept fully informed.

      It is legitimate for any newspaper to claim a personal bias within its editorial content; but NOT within its main columns or letters pages.

      If a letter is badly phrased or legally flawed then the chances are you will be requested to re-write it (and given suitable guidelines to do so); but Bill’s letter does not exhibit those failings – and McNeil raises no such issues. Bill makes no libellous statements and the facts behind his allegations can be easily verified.

      I make no libellous statements and do not allow my contributors to do so unless they are personally levelled at me. (In which case I take no action other than printing them to increase this blog’s circulation).

      If I thought there was a legitimate reason for not publishing Bill’s letter: I would not have published it myself.

      But, all that aside, McNeil had a duty to publish anyway – because of the Public Interest. The fact that he chose not to (or was prevented from doing so – which I do not personally believe) leaves a serious question mark over the Echo’s impartiality and any ‘coverage’ it may give to the general election campaign.

      I’m afraid I cannot go along with your acquiescence, Julian. I believe this to be a very serious matter, which has nothing to do with cost-cutting or the inadequacy of staff reporters.

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