Horrified of Hampstead rally around their sacked hero

Rarely has NW3 seen such outrage. The well-appointed sitting rooms of Hampstead, north-west London, were awash with disgust last night at an unprecedented "piece of barbarism".

The chattering classes have found a new moral cause over which they can work themselves into an intellectual lather - the sacking of their local newspaper editor.

Managers at the liberal enclave's favourite weekly read, the Ham & High, showed the door to Matthew Lewin, 55, on Friday after 27 years' service. But now those newspaper moguls behind the dismissal may have to think again because the full wrath of the great and good of the select suburb is thundering towards them.

Michael Foot, veteran moral streetfighter and perhaps Hampstead's most famous resident, was among those to step forward to pick up the challenge of a reinstatement campaign. The former Labour leader fulminated: "It's a piece of barbarism. Many of us in Hampstead are deeply shocked about the sacking. We can't understand it."

Setting out his pro-Lewin stall with vigour, Mr Foot added: "He is a first-class editor who has maintained the splendid tradition of the paper. I have fired off a protest letter to the owners. I hope it can still be reversed."

Four-square behind the politician stood a glittering array of the Hampstead cognoscenti - novelists Hunter Davies and Margaret Forster, broadcasters Jon Snow and Liz Forgan and the area's MP, Glenda Jackson.

All six, as well as the 59 members of Camden council, were in the process last night of writing protest letters about Mr Lewin's dismissal. Ms Jackson said: "It is deeply shocking. And what is especially shocking is the way he was dismissed."

The Hampstead and Highgate Express, to give the paper its full title, has a longstanding reputation as the gold standard of weekly local papers. As well offering high-brow coverage of news and the arts, it is also said to be the only local weekly paper in the country to offer a foreign news page. Mr Lewin joined the paper as a reporter in 1973 before working his way up the ranks as news editor and deputy editor. He finally took the editor's chair in 1994. Under his editorship, the Ham & High won a tranche of industry awards, including the BT and the Newspaper Society best weekly awards.

But the axe fell a week ago when Mr Lewin was called in to see the regional director of the paper's owners Community Media Ltd (CML), which took over the paper two years ago. He was told not to return to the paper without an appointment and was only allowed to return to his office yesterday to pick up his belongings.

Staff at the paper, who will now work under Ross Lydall, the editor of the paper's sister title, the Highbury and Islington Express, were said to be outraged at CML's "brutal" treatment of Mr Lewin.

In a memo to staff, CML said it had undertaken a review of the Hampstead and Highgate Express group and believed the series would develop best with "new ideas and concepts". The circular concluded: "We believe these changes can be best driven forward under one acting editorship."

Other redundancies are expected. The Ham & High's 20 journalists have been told they will all be assessed on a points system to see who will keep their jobs.

Mr Lewin was not available for comment but Hunter Davies last night added his eloquence to the matter. The author said: "The manner and suddenness of the dismissal seems brutal to me. I can't understand what might be behind it. The paper hasn't gone off. Everyone is so genuinely fond of the Ham & High. It is so well written, well laid-out and intelligent - no other local paper compares."

CML's parent company, Eastern Counties Newspapers, pledged to maintain the traditional values of the Ham & High while modernising other aspects of its output.

In a statement, the company said: "Lydall has been given a mandate to expand the reach of the Hampstead and Highgate Express to include more local news and sport and to adopt a more campaigning style, but at the same time continue with the existing editorial content enjoyed by current readers."

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