THE Northern Echo’s strong exclusive today, about Albert Dryden being released from prison after suffering a stroke, brought the memories flooding back.

Dryden was the man who shot and killed planning officer Harry Collinson, in front of the assembled media, during a planning dispute which spiralled out of control at Butsfield, County Durham, in June, 1991.

I was news editor that day and I’ll never forget how the shocking, sad and surreal events unfolded. Indeed, they have been the subject of countless media training courses since then, examining the ethical, legal and operational issues surrounding the coverage of the case.

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My first memory is the evening before the tragedy. Along with the rest of the North-East press, The Northern Echo had been following the saga of the bungalow Dryden had built without planning consent and tensions between him and Derwentside District Council had become increasingly strained.

After months of wrangling, the council informed the media that enough was enough and they were going to be arriving on the land the next morning to demolish the illegally-built bungalow.

As news editor, I always had an evening meeting with chief photographer Mike Gibb, looking ahead to the next day’s schedule. We discussed the demolition plan in the knowledge that Dryden had publicly declared that he wouldn’t let the council onto his land. He was known to have an interest in firearms and home-made rockets and was clearly eccentric.

I’ll never forget my words to Mike Gibb: “Make sure you’ve got a photographer down there early because this bloke’s crackers – he might go and shoot everyone.”

Of course, it wasn’t intended seriously. It was one of those off the cuff remarks and I never thought for a second that my words would come true.

Tragically, they did. The next morning, The Northern Echo’s photographer Mike Peckett called the newsdesk from the scene and said: “He’s gone mad – he’s started shooting people.”

I honestly thought it was a wind-up because of what I’d said to Mike Gibb the night before. It was only when Peckett became distressed on the phone that I suddenly realised what was really happening.

Our photographer had been forced to beg for his life when Dryden pointed the gun at him after shooting Mr Collinson dead and also injuring TV reporter Tony Belmont and police officer Stephen Campbell.

Peckett produced a remarkable sequence of pictures which were used as a story-board on the front page. Back at the office, he was offered counselling, along with reporter Mark Summers, due to the horrific event they’d witnessed.

The next consideration was the legality of publishing pictures of the shooting taking place. These were the days before the internet so the first pictures were shown on lunchtime television news bulletins. At first, Dryden’s face was covered in a black square due to fears that photographs showing him firing the gun would be prejudicial to the criminal justice process and, therefore, in contempt of court.

However, within an hour, the black square had been removed from Dryden’s face. The conclusion to the frantic legal discussions in media outlets was that any future court case would not centre on whether Dryden had pulled the trigger – that was beyond doubt. The question for a jury to consider would be whether he was of sound mind when he killed Mr Collinson. Was it murder or manslaughter?

In the end, he was convicted of murder and given life in prison. That sentence has now ended following Dryden’s severe stroke at the age of 76.

This all happened 26 years ago but it is still so vivid. My thoughts today are with Harry Collinson’s loved ones and those who still live with the memory of seeing an innocent man shot dead in front of them.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I will always think of it as a tragedy that should never have happened. It should never have got to that point.