Yorkshire Shellfish deaths: When I was accused of '‘deeply irresponsible journalism’ - before a word was written

Wednesday, 29th March, 2023: here’s how my day went.

6.30am: phone rings at the side of the bed. I often ignore it. My number is in the public domain - somehow - and my work phone rings a thousand times a day. If I answered it every time it rang, I’d get nothing done. It buzzed again. And again. Better take a look.

“James, we’re really worried,” read a text message. “The beaches are covered in dead sea creatures. Clams, mussels, starfish. This isn’t normal.”

Christ. Not again, I thought. Better get up.

Dead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. Visitors to the beach, just south of the River Tees, were met with the sight of hundreds of thousands of dead mussels on the shoreline, starfish - some of which were barely moving - crabs and razor clams.Dead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. Visitors to the beach, just south of the River Tees, were met with the sight of hundreds of thousands of dead mussels on the shoreline, starfish - some of which were barely moving - crabs and razor clams.
Dead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. Visitors to the beach, just south of the River Tees, were met with the sight of hundreds of thousands of dead mussels on the shoreline, starfish - some of which were barely moving - crabs and razor clams.
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I took to Twitter, which is where people often contact me. It is, if you like, the new reception area for local papers. If it was my little reception on Ryton Street 15 years ago when I was the editor of the Worksop Guardian - my first editorship - then they’d have been queueing round the block, past Jack Fulton’s. Scores and scores of messages asking me to take a look. Imploring me to have one of my journalists investigate. So, as any decent editor - decent person, even - should, I reassured people on Twitter - in that digital reception - that I would indeed take a look. What happened next should worry us all, but especially those living in the North East.

Honestly, before a word was published. Before, even, a key was struck on a keyboard, they came for me, my team and The Yorkshire Post, determined to gag us. Shut us down.

8.10am: Someone named Amy Louise tweets HERE: “Thousands of mussels washed up. That's not normal is it?” I spot it, having been tipped off earlier. I reply: “This is a real worry. Marine biologists (I always prefer to go to the experts) is this something of concern?” At precisely 9.04am I saw what appeared to be heartbreaking evidence of yet another on-shore die-off. Because I am a serious journalist, one that likes to operate on evidence and proof as well as trust, I needed to satisfy myself that this was as it appeared to be. That was what journalists everywhere once used to do, right?

I tweeted: “We’re trying to arrange cover for THIS (send a photographer) but if you’re in Saltburn / NE coast now and can capture it in stills and video, it will help us to build a case.” Amazingly, I guy called Paul Thompson responded and headed out there for us. His photo made the front page. Thank you, Paul.

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12.19pm: The (attempted) shut down. Simon Clarke, MP shouted: “This is deeply irresponsible journalism from The Yorkshire Post. Ignoring the findings of independent scientists and fuelling a conspiracy narrative. I know James Mitchinson makes no secret he *hates* Conservatives, but even by his standards this is bad.”

I don’t *hate* Conservatives, by the way. I spent the last six or so years, at least, pursuing the Labour administration in Sheffield for its demented destruction of the city’s street trees. I suffer all fools the same, regardless of their politics. My mantra given to the team: guide not your work by right v left but by right v wrong. Judge those in power on the merits of their ideas, intentions and actions.

Wow. So. Let’s recap. I’m roused from sleep by worried constituents of Mr Clarke’s. I agree to take a look at what it is that’s worrying them, then; wham. “This is deeply irresponsible journalism from The Yorkshire Post.”

Quite remarkable. There really is no immediately plausible explanation for it. I have simply agreed to take a look at something people on Teesside are worried about. In fairness, in local journalism at least, that’s your job. My job. Our job. Anyhow. I had work to do but felt I should offer the member for Middlesbrough and South East Cleveland the courtesy of a reply.

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12.22pm: I replied: “Deeply irresponsible journalism'? That is an incredible assessment. We haven't published so much as a word on this story since being alerted to it this morning. I've simply said we'll take a look at it on behalf of concerned local residents. That's now 'deeply irresponsible journalism' according to Simon Clarke.”

Honestly, I was taken aback. For an elected MP, gainfully employed by public money, to attack a journalist (free press, anyone?) for simply agreeing to meet with members of their own community, to listen to their concerns, is wild. Why would an MP seek to discredit my listening as ‘deeply irresponsible’? Not anything published. Just me taking time to listen? ‘Deeply irresponsible.’? Why? Why would an MP do that?

It gets worse, and even more concerning

I had to just tell myself that perhaps Simon was having a bad morning. That can happen to anyone. I’m sure, really, he knows why journalists should be free from attacks from members of Government anywhere, in any country. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Though, I have to say, I was genuinely perturbed by an elected MP trying to shut down a member of the free press simply for thinking about running a story, let alone running a story. Then, Conservative HQ liked his tweet; the one that sought to gag me, and The Yorkshire Post. Pressure me. Intimidate me. Undermine me. Whatever. Again, wow. The Tory HQ account has over 600,000 followers, and it appeared to be supporting a member of Government who was seeking to gag the press before we’d written a word. Having instinctively given Mr Clarke the benefit of the doubt, the party comms team then seemingly backed his modus operandi. As did some other MPs. Are you comfortable with that? Because I really am not.

Tees Valley Mayor: insults over substance

Ben Houchen: he was out of the blocks around noon, too. The same time as Mr Clarke. Urging me to look away because the beach being blanketed in dead marine life was perfectly normal, he chimed in. I was polite, yet robust: “If you’ll forgive me, Ben,” I said, “I’d rather not take your word for it.” (I’d be a rubbish journalist if I did). “But thank you for reaching out. It’s appreciated,” I added. Only polite, right?

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He replied with manners so poor I’d be embarrassed were I his father. He spat: “Literally don’t need to take my word for it given the pictures, scientific reporting, environment agency investigations, Patrick Vallance report delivered by world leading marine biologists. Just expect factual reporting rather than your usual guff.”

Guff? Remember; at that point, nothing had been reported. Why the fear? The previous evening, The Yorkshire Post was crowned Regional Newspaper of the Year at the 2023 Newspaper Awards, a prestigious London event attended by the very best in the industry - locally and nationally. Guff? Come on, Mr Mayor. Please. Late on Thursday night, the esteemed Mayor attempted to weaponise the racism abuse at Yorkshire County Cricket Club in his favour. You can see it HERE.

Later, a local woman, captain of industry and Saltburn native of more than two decades wrote: “Thank you, James. I've lived in Saltburn for 21 years and I have never seen anything like this (and we've had some storms over the years). I am adding my urgent plea for further investigations, please.”

Bianca Robinson, I second your plea and can assure you that the reaction of those two men has convinced me that local residents deserve a listening ear at the very least. That, without fear or favour, we at The Yorkshire Post can provide. And as THIS piece states, we will not stop asking questions. That, after all, is what we do.

James | Editor

This article was first published in the The Yorkshire Post Insider newsletter on Friday, March 31. You can sign up here: www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/newsletter