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The independent press regulator has written to the UK’s political parties – including Conservative Party chair Greg Hands MP – to oppose the use of party leaflets dressed up to look like newspapers.
Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, CEO of industry watchdog Impress, has written to representatives of each major political party to implore them to review this practice amid the “crisis of trust” that journalists and politicians face – and the negative impact it could have on democracy.
A spokesperson for the press standards body, which largely represents smaller and independent news organisations, said: “With an election just around the corner, this is a practice that should be addressed as soon as possible.”
Byline Times has seen dozens of examples of fake newspapers issued from Conservative Party HQ and distributed across the country in recent weeks – with many failing to identify which party is sharing the material on the so-called ‘imprint’ at the bottom of the publications.
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The vast majority of voters believe fake newspapers being promoted by political parties – sometimes without making clear who they’re from – should be banned.
Recent polling for this newspaper by independent pollsters Omnisis found that 62% of people in Britain think that the fake newspaper tactic should be banned if they do not make clear which party is behind it.
The figure rises to 65% among Conservative voters, the same as for Labour voters. Liberal Democrats, who also have been known to use fake newspapers for election material, are less in favour of a ban (55%).
The figure rises significantly among over 75s, some of whom may be more vulnerable to misleading campaign materials: 75% back a ban on the practice. And opposition sits at 71% among those with no formal qualifications.
Readers have responded with anger to the leaflets over the past few months. One wrote: “Many people will be fooled by this, especially older people who I would imagine tend to read the local papers more are also less likely to notice the microscopic small print in hard to find places.” Another branded it “Tory marketing deliberately disguised as independent news”, while one recipient dubbed it “dirty tricks” campaigning.
Some voters have been posting back fake newspapers sent by the Conservative Party to their head office – in a bid to cost the party in postage fees. One voter told Byline Times they had posted approximately half a kilogram of takeaway menus and junk mail to CCHQ, with a handwritten note saying “No more fake news please”.
The ruse has previously been condemned by industry body the News Media Association among other press groups. But despite being discouraged by the watchdog, the Electoral Commission, it is not against the law.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission told Byline Times recently that “generally speaking,” election materials require the name and address of the printer and promoter – but not the political party.
Moreover, the candidate rules setting out transparency for who is publishing campaign materials don’t apply yet, as the general election date has not been announced.
But the Electoral Commission figure added: “We encourage all parties and campaigners to include imprints on all material, to provide voters with transparency.”
The tactic of publishing fake papers was used successfully in Uxbridge and South Ruislip last month, with the party’s ‘Uxbridge and South Ruislip People’ urging people to “Stop ULEZ” (Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone expansion). The fake magazine mirrored the title of the local council-run Hillingdon People, which is meant to be apolitical.
Industry title Press Gazette reported that the Conservative Party was forced to apologise to the publisher of several Midlands newspapers after it distributed newspaper-style campaign literature in the area under trademarks owned by the company.
The Conservatives said it was a “genuine mistake” that three pamphlets resembled editions of MNA Media’s Chronicle Week. The party agreed to make a donation to charity as part of its apology, the title reported.
The Midland News Association said the leaflets “were designed to mimic the style of a newspaper and they caused confusion among many who received them, who believed they were reading their usual Chronicle”.
However, they do not appear to have apologised after High Peak MP, Conservative Robert Largan, distributed a “newspaper” titled the High Peak Reporter – despite the name of the title being owned by an actual newspaper group, Quest Media Network.
Chris Bird owns Quest Media Network, which owns the brand title High Peak Reporter, and told the Prolific North outlet: “I guess we should be flattered by this stunt, but we are not. Would Mr Largan have tried this with the Daily Mirror or Daily Telegraph? Absolutely not, because that would have cost him and his party a lot of money for the blatant breach.”
And Lincoln Conservative MP Karl McCartney issued a leaflet to residents branded as the ‘Lincoln Chronicle’ – the same name as a weekly newspaper in the seat that was closed 15 years ago, and which many residents remember. The move was condemned by a former photographer for the real paper, Dr Mike Maloney OBE, one of the UK’s most decorated photographers.
He told Byline Times that the fake newspaper was “typical of politicians”. He added it represented the idea of “never letting the facts interfere with a good story”.
Letter to Conservative Party chair
Dear Greg Hands, trust in journalism has reached a crisis point. Our research shows that less than half of the public trust news publishers, while journalists themselves are trusted by just 38% of the public; politicians are one of the few jobs to rank lower.
For democracy to flourish, it is essential that we have a thriving, healthy and trusted news media ecosystem. To achieve this, collaboration and transparency is needed between news organisations, the public and politicians.
It is entirely disheartening then to see the latter groups continuing to engage in the practice of distributing campaigning materials under the guise of local newspapers, misleading voters into believing what they are reading is the work of local journalists from independent publications.
Often, these are accompanied by either no clarification of their actual purpose or by only the smallest clarifying statements.
We are therefore asking that the Conservative Party, and all political parties, carefully review this practice among their candidates moving forward and the negative impact it will have on politics, journalism, and democracy.
If you do insist on continuing to produce these materials, we implore you to seek out rigorous and independent press regulation for them to ensure they meet robust standards.
Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Impress CEO
Over 1,300 GB adults were polled online by Omnisis on the 22nd August 2023. Answers were weighted to make the results representative of the demographics of the British public.
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