The Society of Editors (SoE) has called on the Liberal Democrats to review political freesheets which appear to ape mainstream publications following the emergence of a new “free” title by the party.
The Lib Dems’ Northants Citizen describing itself as a “free local newspaper” was delivered to homes in the patch covered by the Northampton Chronicle & Echo’s in recent days.
The re-emergence of the problem follows the Campaign for Real News launched by the SoE in 2020 to tackle political freesheets that appear to mimic news organisations following practices highlighted during the last General Election.
In an editorial published on Monday, JPIMedia-owned Chronicle & Echo said the freesheet was “nothing more than a political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news”.
The editorial stated: “Nowhere on the front page does it identify itself as a party political freesheet produced by the Liberal Democrats. Only in tiny print on the back page sandwiched between a picture story showing a number of local Liberal Democrats and a page lead does it state that it is published by West Northamptonshire Liberal Democrats.
“Instead it uses a design and layout familiar to local newspapers. There’s even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.
“The articles are blatant political grandstanding with no attempt to offer any balance or right of reply.”
The paper warned that the public may trust local journalism less as a consequence and its publication protects the powerful from scrutiny.
The SoE adds that all political parties should ensure their content does not undermine legitimate local newspapers.
“Unfortunately, the fact this practice has been going on for some time and it has been raised with the Liberal Democrats as well as other parties would seem to indicate the Lib Dems are still not taking this matter seriously”, said Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors.
“It is in no one’s interests, including politicians, to appear to be attempting to mislead the public in this way. The practice undermines trust and democracy and it is to be hoped the government will act to ensure there is a requirement for all political-affiliated newsletters and propaganda publications including those on line to be clearly marked as such.”
In November, the Society responded to the Cabinet Office’s consultation on Transparency in Digital Campaigning, warning that alongside the overdue need to extend the imprints regime to digital campaign material, the volume of every day political material marketed as ‘news’ and communicated to the public inside and outside of election time diminished the established media’s ability to be heard.
The Society’s executive director Ian Murray said at the time: “It is the job of the media to hold power to account and to question, rebut or present as fact political communications based on the evidence. Open debate is to be encouraged but this can only be achieved if the media’s ability to communicate accurate news and information is not increasingly threatened by misleading content marketed as ‘news’.”