Why there’s nothing we can do about politicians creating fake newspapers

Why there’s nothing we can do about politicians creating fake newspapers

Political parties have increasingly been impersonating local newspapers in their campaign materials, but should these be more regulated?

Ahead of next year’s UK general election, political parties and campaigners have taken to making party political leaflets look like local newspapers.

Some of these printed materials, according to an investigation by Byline Times, even use the names of real former local newspapers, such as the High Peak Reporter and the Lincoln Chronicle.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:  “Local journalism is trusted for its accuracy and ability to inform on issues relevant to communities. Any political party resorting to dirty tricks by impersonating local papers risks eroding the public’s trust in journalism, and confidence in stories often relied on to inform decision making.”

She added journalists will “rightly be alarmed” at threats to their representation and integrity if this form of political advertising is allowed to continue.

“It is clear stringent regulation is required to ensure communities access information to the ethical standards they expect, and harm to journalism is avoided,” Stanistreet concluded.

Owen Meredith, chief executive of the News Media Association, echoed this as he said: “The NMA has long expressed deep concern regarding the dissemination of political literature disguised to resemble authentic, trusted local newspapers. Political parties should be free to communicate their message to the public, but should be clear in labelling their communication and not mimic trusted local newsbrands.”

He said the NMA has written to the Chairs of all the major Parties calling for them to take a stand against such practices which “mislead the public and erode trust in both the media and politicians”. The NMA is still waiting for a response.

James Mitchison, editor of The Yorkshire Post, the regional newspaper group part of National World, said the matter should be raised in the House of Commons.

“Not only does this deceitful propaganda undermine hard-pressed local papers by conning unwitting readers, but it damages democracy by deliberately discombulating the electorate,” Mitchison tweeted.

The UK Government, however, does not appear to be concerned. A spokesperson confirmed that the Government’s view is that mimicking regional publications is a part of the country’s “tradition of robust political debate and freedom of speech”.

“Policy or political arguments which can be rebutted by rival campaigners or the press as part of the normal course of political debate should not be regulated,” the spokesperson added.

However, the very principle of ads being identifiable as advertising, as opposed to editorial content, is a cornerstone of how all other types of advertising is regulated in the UK.

So why is political advertising exempt?

What the elections regulator says

The Electoral Commission has rules about campaign, election and other types of material from political parties, candidates, and campaigners, which depend on its content and who publishes it.

Broadly, printed and digital election material must not make false statement about the personal character or conduct of any candidate or resemble a poll card.

Some election campaign material, called “imprints”, must state the name and address of the printer, promoter and who it’s being promoted for (in Scotland it’s only the latter two), so voters can understand who is trying to influence them. This applies to all printed election campaign material, like newspaper and billboard ads, but there is no law outside of Scotland requiring digital election campaign material to have an imprint.

The imprint rules apply when a person officially becomes a candidate, normally about six weeks before the election and these rules do not require political parties to include their logo on campaign material, or specify colours or branding a party needs to use.

The Electoral Commission does not have a role regulating the pre-election period but it does in regulating online political ads along with the Information Commissioner’s Office and UK Statistics Authority and its executive arm the Office for Statistics Regulation.

ASA ‘monitoring’ the situation

A spokesperson from the Advertising Standards Authority, the consumer advertising standards watchdog, told The Media Leader it had been monitoring the conversation around these fake local newspapers used for political campaigning as an interested regulator.

However, political advertising does not fall under its remit so, by definition, it cannot do anything but observe the situation, the spokesperson stressed.

Currently, political ads are banned from being broadcast on TV or radio under the Communications Act of 2003, but this does not apply to non-broadcast media like posters and newspapers.

Guy Parker, CEO of ASA, wrote in 2020 that the body agreed claims in political advertising should be regulated, but that it was “complex in practice”.

He went on to explain that there were several facets to this including political parties and campaign groups agreeing to be regulated, proper funding, a carefully defined scope, and independence.

On the first point, Parker wrote: “One of the strengths of the ASA system is the support and cooperation we receive from the overwhelming majority of UK companies, who abide by our decisions on responsible advertising. And one of the reasons why our system withdrew entirely from regulating political ads in the 1990s was the absence of sufficient support from political parties and our concern about restraining freedom of speech around democratic elections without a clear mandate to do so.”

This refers to the fact that until 1999, non-broadcast political advertising was subject to some rules in the Advertising Code, for example relating to denigration and offence.

‘Tell them what you think’

However, following the 1997 General Election, political advertising was excluded from ASA’s remit due to “several factors that risked bringing advertising regulation into disrepute” including the short and fixed timeframes over which elections run, concerns around independence of the system affecting rulings for or against political parties, and the absence of consensus between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties on bringing this form of advertising under the code.

Parker concluded: “The ASA, as a non-statutory regulator funded primarily by advertisers, is not the right body to lead political advertising regulation, but we are ready to help: sharing our experience of regulating non-political ads and exploring how we might contribute in a more collaborative arrangement.

“But, precisely because this issue goes to the heart of our democracy, it needs to be the political parties and campaign groups who take the all-important first step: agree to be held to the same standard of truthfulness that society expects from companies. ”

He suggested it might be “worthwhile exploring a more collaborative model” whereby experts from several appropriate regulators could take on the task, maybe only for the duration of election or referendum campaigns, to “combine expertise and share the reputational risk”.

At the moment, the ASA says on its website that the best course of action for anyone with concerns about a political ad is to contact the party responsible and “exercise your democratic right to tell them what you think”.

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