The decline in local and regional newspapers in the UK is all too familiar – dwindling ad revenue has decimated newsrooms, causing closures and a drop in critical coverage of local political and social news. 

Some communities are now not served by any local media. Where media exists, it faces an ongoing battle to retain the trust of audiences.

So it is ironic that two of the main political parties persist in using a local-newspaper campaign strategy as a way to get their messages across.

A host of cases have emerged where party political campaign pamphlets are formatted to look as if they are legitimate local tabloid newspapers – with credible sounding names. These are delivered to voters’ doorsteps. 

Deception damages democracy

Ahead of the announcement of the election on July 4, Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society of Editors – which represents national, regional and local editors – had called on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to abandon use of the tabloid format, as the tactic risks damaging democracy. 

Earlier this year the Society pledged to expose “political parties and candidates who continue to attempt to mislead voters by distributing campaign material disguised as local newspapers.” 

This prompted the Liberal Democrats (LibDems)  to issue guidance and templates to local campaigners on how to make their messaging more palatable as the situation worsened, prompting a call for parties to desist from using fake newspapers altogether.

The LibDems’ guidance was that tabloid leaflets should be ”clearly identifiable as being from and paid for by the Liberal Democrats on the front page… (this) will show us to be leading the way on transparency.

“In the spirit of upholding local journalism and avoiding confusion among residents, please also avoid giving your tabloid a title that could be confused with any similar local newspaper.”

But since then political parties have been arguing about whose campaigns were more fake – leading to a call to desist from using this format.

Meanwhile, Full Fact, the fact-checking NGO, is campaigning to Stop Politicians from pretending to be your local newspaper with an active petition now nearing its target of 20 000 signatures, (with 17,674 at last count).

News you can lose

This is no new trend: “Full Fact has seen this happen consistently at previous elections,” reads the petition. A  2019 general election article confirms that it was common practice in the last general election. 

Journalism and newsroom strategist Fergus Bell – founder and CEO of Fathm – has been flagging the issue on LinkedIn: 

‘I know it isn’t a real paper because it is my job – but many, many others won’t. While this practice continues we will have to fight even harder to prevent further damage to real journalism.”

In his sights are not just the political parties: “I am disappointed that companies who produce and print actual newspapers might be involved.

Fellow journalists and media leaders echoed his sentiments on the impact this practice has on readers and voters.

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