Our old friend Peter Mandelson is alleged to have engineered the removal of Harry Blackwood, editor of the Hartlepool Mail, a newspaper in Mr Mandelson's constituency. Tony Blair is supposed to have made a telephone call on Mr Mandelson's behalf which may have been instrumental in Mr Blackwood's suspension. These and other allegations have been raised by Simon Walters in two fascinating articles in the Mail on Sunday. As is often the case on these occasions, the plot is a complicated one; smoke swirls around the battlefield, and after a time it becomes difficult to discern the key figures as they slog it out with claim and counterclaim. I therefore intend to concentrate on the undisputed facts, which in themselves appear to show Mr Mandelson in a very poor light.
It is a fact that Mr Mandelson has on at least three occasions complained about Mr Blackwood's editorship to his bosses at the Edinburgh-based Johnston Press. It is a fact that in each instance Johnston Press conducted inquiries which exonerated Mr Blackwood. It is a fact that on at least one occasion Mr Mandelson complained about Mr Blackwood to Roger Parry, non-executive chairman of Johnston Press. It is a fact that last November Mr Mandelson had a lengthy meeting with Tim Bowdler, chief executive of Johnston Press, in which he suggested that Mr Blackwood was trying to destroy him. It is a fact that three days after this meeting Mr Bowdler sent a letter to Mr Mandelson in which he referred to 'a threat' which Mr Mandelson had made. It is a fact that sources I have spoken to in Hartlepool dispute Mr Mandelson's contention that the Hartlepool Mail's coverage of the 2001 general election, and of the mayoral election last year, was biased. It is fact that Mr Blackwood is now on sick leave and that he has told me that he is so disenchanted with Johnston Press that he will never be able to work for the company again.
All this we know for sure. It is fact. What we cannot be certain of is whether Mr Blair really did telephone Roger Parry on Mr Mandelson's behalf. Mr Blackwood says he was told this by a senior manager in Johnston Press; the company denies the call took place. We have to treat with caution the suggestion that Mr Parry may have been anxious to assist Mr Mandelson because he happens also to be UK chief executive of the American media company Clear Channel which stands to gain a great deal from the Communications Bill that received its third reading this week in the Commons. We also cannot prove that Mr Mandelson has actually brought about Mr Blackwood's downfall. In response to the suggestion that he has, he told the journalist's magazine Press Gazette somewhat smugly: 'I would like to say