Party leaders warned not to disguise election material as newspapers

4 December 2019, 08:25

The party leaders have been urged to stop sending out political material disguised as newspapers
The party leaders have been urged to stop sending out political material disguised as newspapers. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Political parties have been warned to stop sending voters political campaign material that appears similar to local newspapers as parties fight for votes in the upcoming election.

The organisation which represents the editors of some top newspapers has threatened to expose the worst offenders if they continue to pass off political material as news.

The Society of Editors and local news organisations have accused parties of misleading voters with the move.

All three major parties have been criticised for using the tactic with news editors threatening to boycott some political material if they do not stop the practice.

Katie French, the editor of the Basingstoke Gazette, criticised the Lib Dems over their publication the Mid Hampshire Gazette, which has been produced in support of Paula Ferguson, its election candidate for Winchester.

The Mid Hampshire Gazette describes itself as a “free newspaper” covering several local districts, with the words “Liberal Democrats” appearing in very small print at the top right of the front page.

Speaking to the i newspaper Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson defended the tactic, she said: “Generally we have newspapers going out as one of our campaign types of leaflets and, as I say, it’s kind of as old as the hills.

“Doing campaign newspapers is not exactly a new campaign tactic, nor one that is only one that is done by the Liberal Democrats.”

The Society of Editors has also called for new “clear, enforceable guidelines on political freesheets” to be introduced as a result of the row.

Similar pamphlets and papers have been published in a number of constituencies by all three major parties, with constituencies targeted including Chelmsford, Putney, Eastleigh, and Finchley and Golders Green.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "If a politician or their party can attempt to deliberately mislead you by cloaking their partisan messages in the disguise of an independent and trusted local newspaper, what else are they attempting to camouflage?

"And while those behind such publications will argue there is no desire nor attempt to deceive by their actions and that - as Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said - this sort of practice is 'as old as the hills', that does not make it any the more acceptable."

Voters across the country have complained that the format of election material is misleading, as disclaimers about who has published it often appear in very small print.

Devon resident Ben Cooper received a paper entitled "Totnes Future" through his front door, which had the headline: "Brexit deal agreed and ready to go."

Only text in small print at the bottom of the page identifies it as Conservative electioneering material.

The small print on one of the election leaflets disguised as a newspaper
The small print on one of the election leaflets disguised as a newspaper. Picture: PA

He branded the practice dishonest, pointing out people would have "no chance" of seeing that it is election material.

He told reporters: "It's just dishonest, isn't it?

"Unless you were really looking for it, you would have no chance of seeing the imprint and knowing it was a campaign material sent out for the Tories - it is so tiny!"

Mr Murray said: "If there is no wish to deceive, then why give the publication a similar title to the existing independent newspaper in the area, as is often the case. If the intention is not to pull the wool, why not simply call a political freesheet the Conservative Courier, Labour Letter, Lib Dem Latest, Scots Nats Sentinel, or Brexit Party Beacon?

"What irony that all of the main parties have pledged their support to protect and maintain a vibrant local press and yet then set out to undermine the public's trust in the medium.

"Should a reader simply mistake a political freesheet for a version of their regular paper or, worse, believe their local editor has sided with one party over another then the destruction of decades, in some cases over a century, of impartial, non-partisan reporting will be assured.

"It is time the practice was brought to an end, for the sake of local newspapers but also, I would contend, for the sake of local politics. The public are not fooled for long and will not forgive politicians who attempt to take them for mugs."