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Did the Liverpool Echo try to get a vocal critic kicked off of her journalism course?
The newspaper has been accused of an extraordinary overreach of its power
By Jack Walton
After losing her job in August, Helen Wilkie enrolled on a journalism course at Liverpool Community College to get her NCTJ — a professional qualification that is required by many employers in the media industry. The course has been known for providing a path into the media for non-degree educated students, often those from more deprived backgrounds.
One of the boons of taking the course? A two day placement at the city’s flagship newspaper, the Echo, with the promise of “masterclasses” from well-known journalists in the North West, such as political editor Liam Thorp. It’s a long-standing partnership for the course and a great way for trainees to get real-life experience in news media.
Wilkie, who is a prominent and spiky local voice on Twitter, spoke to her course tutor before the placement began and expressed some reservations. She had criticised the Echo a lot in the past, on Twitter, and wasn’t sure she’d “be welcome”. But she concluded that as it was only two days, she might as well go along. It would be easier than scrambling around for an alternative placement.
On the first day, she was allowed to sit in on the morning conferences where editors discussed daily schedules and big upcoming stories to be published that day; breaking political news and crime stories fed back by on-the-ground reporters. At one point, the “What’s On” editor video-called in with the news that a new range of Fabulosa disinfectant spray had been released and a piece — the latest in a series of Echo stories about Fabulosa — would be running in due course.
If nothing else though, the day gave her a peek under the bonnet at the inner workings of 21st century journalism, valuable insight for someone hoping to work in the field. She pitched a few stories, got some blank looks, but still describes the “buzz in the office” that live news generates. As someone whose family are long-term Echo buyers, it was a day well spent.
On the wall were call centre-style screens the paper uses to track which stories are performing well and which aren’t. The screens compare traffic rates with the Manchester Evening News, another one of the dozens of newspapers owned by the Echo’s London-based parent comany Reach PLC, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.
The Echo takes a lot of flack, not least from us. Part of that is because it’s by far and away the main source of news in Liverpool and thus people rely on it to hold the city’s institutions to account. Even people who profess to dislike the Echo tend to read it at least once in a while, and the website often attracts tens of millions of clicks in a month.
The second day of the placement was on Monday. This time, the paper’s editor Maria Breslin was in the office. No sooner had the day begun, Breslin came over and spoke to the other LCC student on placement and introduced her to various staff members. Wilkie didn’t get the same friendly reception. Instead, she says she was summoned to Breslin’s office and asked: “are you The Wilk on Twitter?”
Wilkie’s social media output divides opinion. Local business journalist and former Daily Post writer Tony McDonough says she has “the most acid-tongued output on Twitter”. Those who follow her account — where she goes by “the Wilk” — will know this. I would know this too, she once called me a “dipshit”. Nonetheless, the Echo are more often the targets of her ire. It’s perhaps not suprising, therefore, that the newspaper’s editor might not want Wilkie in her own newsroom.
In 2019, Wilkie called Thorp’s reporting on the Beautiful Ideas Company — which ran a car park scheme at Everton and Liverpool matches where proceeds were meant to be invested into community projects — “fucked up”. In 2020 she wrote “FFS [for fuck sake] not Ok” about an Echo story in which a 52 year old dad saw “the woman of his dreams” on the platform of a train station but never spoke to her. She thought it was odd to write about a man gawking at a woman in a public space by describing him as a “romantic hopeful”.
One of the strongest and most personal incidents of criticism was for crime reporter Jonathan Humphries in 2018, after he wrote an article describing the “tension” caused by large amounts of immigration from Roma communities from Eastern Europe on Smithdown Road. Wilkie called Humphries “a bad Cumbrain wool” who was behaving like “a UKIP shill”. She continued: “You’re not the voice of Smithdown you’re a rabble rousing tool”.
Back in the office, Breslin asked a fair question: “You don’t like us very much do you?” According to Wilkie, the chat lasted a few minutes. Breslin talked about the importance of the course and Wilkie made a comment about the absence of people from non-white communities on staff at the paper, with Wilkie claiming that Breslin replied that hiring such people was difficult because few had applied. Wilkie was duly told to leave. Allegedly, Breslin followed her out to the exit in front of other staff and exclaimed; “there’s the stairs”.
Wilkie claims that Breslin herself did not provide specific evidence of a Tweet or incident that prompted this reaction, but referred instead to the general tone of her account. Immediately after being kicked out, she recorded a video and uploaded it to Twitter. Some of you may have seen it already as it got over 3000 views before being taken down. She says she found the ordeal “really shocking” and that it had left her in tears that night and struggling to concentrate on an exam the next day.
At this stage, the incident was quite divisive. Liverpolitan — the opinion-based online magazine — was critical of Wilkie’s decision to bring race into the equation, and said it was a “clear example of how divisive woke ideologies on diversity re-invent biological racism while making the accusers feel all morally superior.” Others wondered why someone with a long history of criticising the Echo in blunt terms could expect the paper to allow them a placement at all.
But what happened next, according to Wilkie’s account, took the story in a less trivial — and more troubling — direction.
The morning after the Echo incident, Wilkie turned up to her course and was called in for a meeting with the Head of School Sara Barnes. Barnes told her the Echo had been in touch with her tutor Joanna Lane. The Post has listened to a recording of the meeting, in which Barnes says: “they [The Echo] don't want to continue with the partnership as long as you are part of the course”. In other words, the Echo had threatened to cease allowing any of the college’s students to go on placement unless Wilkie was ejected altogether.
“They are our biggest partnership,” Barnes explained. She went on to reassure Wilkie that the college intended to further investigate and that they would “do [their] best” for her to continue and complete the course, perhaps by working from home and keeping clear of Echo-related elements. Barnes told Wilkie the “college [was] worried about losing the partnership” but they hoped to get back in touch with the Echo and come to “some sort of agreement”. Barnes adds — in a tone suggesting powerlessness rather than deference — “that’s the position of power [Breslin’s] in so she can do what she likes”.
It seemed to Wilkie like an extraoridnary abuse of power by the Echo and a stark undermining of the principle of free speech. They were — if Barnes was relaying the story correctly — trying to get a student kicked off her course to punish her for criticising the newspaper.
Breslin is known for bristling at public criticism of the newspaper. She appeared at a government select committee in July to discuss the sustainability of local journalism, and complained about the “snobbery” of accusations that the Echo relies on low-brow clickbait content to get as many eyeballs on their site as possible. “We would never do clickbait journalism because we have a loyal audience in Liverpool,” she said.
Josh Kaplan, a digital editor of the Jewish Chronicle, responded on Twitter with screenshots of Echo headlines, suggesting that this claim was perhaps less than truthful. “The jaw dropping cost of Gemma Owen’s necklace she never removes” was one; “Alan Carr issues update after collapsing on stage” another.
But her alleged intervention with Liverpool College Community is a much more significant story. When we reached out to the college for comment they told us they have a “positive, long-standing relationship with The Liverpool Echo, which provides many of our students with fantastic work experience opportunities and training” but that it would be “inappropriate” to comment on issues pertaining to an individual student.
When The Post first contacted Breslin, we asked whether the Echo had asked for Wilkie to be removed from the course and she responded: “The Echo has not asked for Helen Wilkie to be removed from her course”.
Just to be sure, we emailed Breslin again, asking: “Can you categorically guarantee that neither you nor anyone at the Echo has put any pressure on the college to suspend her or made any threats relating to her?” This time there was no reply.