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Press, politicians and holding power to account

PUBLISHED: 11:43 28 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:43 28 November 2019

Political editor Richard Porritt asking Boris Johnson why the regional press is so important
Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Political editor Richard Porritt asking Boris Johnson why the regional press is so important Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

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Many years ago I was sat in a pub on my day off happily reading a pile of newspapers when my phone rang.

A much younger Richard Porritt interviewing Tony Blair in Downing StreetA much younger Richard Porritt interviewing Tony Blair in Downing Street

It was my then chief reporter asking if I wanted to interview prime minister Tony Blair in Downing Street.

For a self-confessed daft lad from Yorkshire this was quite the assignment. Up until that point the closest I had got to parliament was the picture on the label of the HP Sauce bottle.

Of course I said "yes" and spent the rest of the day imagining myself Jeremy Paxman-style taking down the government with a few cleverly fired questions.

When it came to it Mr Blair ignored most of my questions and spoke only on the topics he wanted to. But it was a great lesson - and my mum was delighted with the picture of her boy with Mr Blair.

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At the time I was working for the South London Press and I was shocked by the fact the prime minister would even have the time to speak to a regional newspaper.

But now I understand.

Earlier this week I interviewed the current prime minister, Boris Johnson. I have now had the pleasure of interviewing every PM since that fruitless 15 minutes with Mr Blair all those years ago.

I am not sure if I am any better at it these days - but I am certainly not afraid to chip in and guide the conversation in the direction I want rather than let the politician get away with dictating the topics.

The reason us regional hacks get the chance to speak to the premier is simple: They understand the power of the press. And a neutral press - which by and large the regional media is - often carries more weight than the nationals.

During election campaigns the scrutiny of candidates and policies is vital. That is why this newspaper published a manifesto for the region right at the start of the campaign.

We would never tell our readers how to vote or try to influence in favour of any party. But we are determined to hold politicians to account on behalf of the people of East Anglia. That is our job.

Since the rise of the internet there has been a general view that newspapers are dying. This is codswallop. Yes our audience is changing the way it consumes news - but it is bigger than it has been for decades.

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More and more people come to our websites every single week.

And yet the naysayers - often, very sadly, former journalists - still hark back to the "good old days". This is also codswallop.

I strongly believe regional newspapers have not yet had their golden age. An age with mass readership and the ability to offer so much more than we could in print alone. Podcasts, video and the opportunity to truly engage with the reader.

That is why prime ministers still make a beeline for newspaper offices when they want to be heard.

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And thankfully the support for our industry from politicians apparently remains - even if we do proudly ruffle their feathers.

"I am a massive supporter of local newspapers they are integral to local community life - local politics, law ... if you don't have court reports in local papers justice is not seen to be done," said Mr Johnson when I quizzed him on the media.

Asked if he would continue to support self regulation for the press he said: "I will and you will see in our manifesto that I do not think it is right to make newspaper legally liable in cases where they might be totally innocent."

This is a vital point. National newspapers faced an existential crisis surround the phone hacking scandal. There was a push for the state to regulate journalism.

But that would be very dangerous. Any state involvement in what a journalist writes could quickly lead to censorship.

The News Media Association has issued a direct challenge to the main parties to pledge to protect the vital work the regional media does.

It was my great pleasure to put some of those points to Mr Johnson. I hope he was listening and his warm words will prompt action if he is returned to number 10 next month.

In the meantime reporters up and down this country will continue to dig out the tales that change things for ordinary people. But not only that. It is not all about undercover investigations and exposing corruption. Journalism can also entertain and inform.

And at a regional level good journalism sparks conversation. It brings people together.

We don't always get it right. But we never intentionally get it wrong.

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