David Kernek, editor from 1993 to 1997, was immersed in the region’s politics both before and after he took his place in the editor’s chair

MY THREE tours of duty with The Northern Echo – as political editor in London covering the House of Comics, deputy editor and finally editor – left me with only one regret: I never kept a daily diary, or even a weekly one.

Every now and again I’d resolve to knuckle down, but the working days in all of these roles were long and, in London, Parliament’s press bar offered a seductive temptation to waste what was left of the night after the 10pm votes.

My Priestgate days were rarely shorter than 13 hours. This is not a moan about long shifts: they came with the territory. Fatigue and sometimes sheer slothfulness left me without a detailed record of my Echo service that spanned years of painful change for the North-East and for the newspaper that day-in-day-out spoke up for the region.

I do have, though, vivid memories of my three years covering Westminster, 18 months of them watching Jim Callaghan’s struggling minority administration hang on to power – besieged by the money markets, the unions and Tony Benn – the rest observing Mrs Thatcher take on the unions and the so-called Wets in her own party.

The highlight, from a purely professional viewpoint, was seeing, in March 1979, the Labour government, having been propped up by the Liberals and lastly even the Ulster Unionists, lose by one vote the no-confidence motion that mandated the General Election which gave us Thatcherism.

The Northern Echo: Former Prime Minister Margaret ThatcherFormer Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Labour’s Roy Hattersley said the vote marked “the last rites of old Labour”. That was one, we now see, for the How Wrong They Were column.

This was the first successful no-confidence vote since 1924, the victim then being Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. There won’t be any more until and unless the wretched Fixed Term Parliament Act is repealed.

There were then first-class orators in the Commons: MPs weren’t required by dumbed-down television news shows and anti-social media to cough up banal sound bites. Four of the best were: Peter Shore, Labour’s left-wing maverick who opposed UK membership of the embryonic European Union and backed Thatcher’s Falklands War; Enoch Powell, infamous for his Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham and therefore less well-known for the logic, simplicity and elegance of his arguments on other matters; gentlemanly Gwynfor Evans, the Welsh nationalists’ rarely reported first MP – reported rarely because few readers, other than those in Wales, were interested in his little country thought to be cut off from civilisation by England and the Irish Sea; and Tony Benn, a champion for democracy who, said Harold Wilson, immatured with age.

My start as the Echo’s deputy editor in 1982 was a deep-end experience, the Falklands emergency having turned into a shooting war within a few weeks of my arrival.

My boss, Don Evans, was understandably pre-occupied with worry about the safety of his son who was with the South Atlantic submarine fleet. He retired, leaving me to make it up as I went along until the arrival of an editor experienced in conducting the orchestra that produces a newspaper.

The Echo’s books page, the Hear All Sides letters section – selecting and editing letters from Bewildered, Barnard Castle and Disgusted, Ripon – and the paper’s daily leader or comment column, The Northern Echo’s considered 700/800-word commentary on regional, national and international matters of pith and moment, were my main responsibilities. In leader writing, the judgement of Solomon – or an attempt at it – and a sure grasp of libel law is needed. After a liquid lunch, steel-coated stoicism was a help, as was a cigarette or two.

The Northern Echo: The 1984 Durham miners' strike in EasingtonThe 1984 Durham miners' strike in Easington

In those days journalists were allowed to smoke; in some offices it might have been compulsory. Industrial decline in the North-East and the 1984-85 miners’ strike were among the largest and hardest stories.

The Northern Echo: The 1984 Durham miners' strike in Easington. Picture: Keith PattisonThe 1984 Durham miners' strike in Easington. Picture: Keith Pattison

Along with the letters deploring Mrs Thatcher’s demolition of the region’s industries, there were not a few from miners opposing the strike. Fearing retribution – front doors daubed, car tyres punctured – many of them asked for their names to be omitted. Called without a national ballot and starting when coal stocks were high enough to keep the lights on, the strike was doomed to fail.

The Northern Echo: Two police officers walk through the almost deserted early morning streets of Easington during the 1984 Miners' StrikeTwo police officers walk through the almost deserted early morning streets of Easington during the 1984 Miners' Strike

Sometimes the job involved entertaining guests. One of them, in 1983, was the new MP for Sedgefield, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, elected on the back of a Labour Party manifesto described by another Labour MP as the “longest suicide note in history”. The New Hope for Britain promised, among other things, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community.

Tony had asked for a tour of our Priestgate building. I explained, roughly, how a newspaper was put together and took him out for lunch. I cannot now recall a word of our conversation. I had him marked down as a smooth southern lawyer. A southern visitor – albeit one from Lincolnshire – to the region in 1985 was Mrs Thatcher who, having been photographed looking at wastelands where factories once stood, proved that she’d read How Not To Make Friends and Influence People. People who kept banging on about unemployment, she said, were “moaning Minnies”. Didn’t that go down well?

Her tour of the region finished in Newcastle, where she invited journalists – thought to be opinion-formers – to dinner. We left with the impression that she was not greatly interested in our opinions.

I returned to the Echo in 1993, honoured – as were all of my predecessors – to be in the office that had been occupied by WT Stead and Harry Evans. The centuries-old business model that had funded their campaigning journalism, however, was unravelling.

Perhaps the rot began with free newspapers. How could anything free have value?

The Northern Echo, committed to attacking the devil, was not returning the new, alarmingly higher profit margins demanded by owners now committed to the achievement of – jargon alert! –maximum shareholder value.

We had lost our great press and the magical mix of ink, clatter and rumble that came with it every night. The paper was now printed on an inadequate machine in York. Next to go were editions, district offices and, harrowingly, 51 people.

I went, too, but with not one regret – other than that diary problem – about my years, with all their ups and downs, with England’s finest regional newspaper.