Stuart Coster: There is anger from the editors of real local newspapers at the fake versions from the Lib Dems

16 Apr

Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

As campaigning steps up ahead of May’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats have come under fresh fire from local newspapers and the Society of Editors over a new spate of the party’s fake newspaper leaflets.

Hot on the heels of the Lib Dems’ recent uncaring refusal to stop distributing political leaflets during lockdown, the party has once again been caught putting out propaganda mocked up to mislead voters into thinking they are reading independent local journalism.

Examples of phoney ‘newspapers’ distributed by the Lib Dems in recent weeks include the Welwyn Hatfield News, Wiltshire Post, South Oxfordshire Observer, Andover South Gazette, and Maidenhead News – all displaying fake names, using non-party colours, and any references to their political origin in tiny or peripheral text.

No doubt few would see much wrong with giving political leaflets a more reader-friendly, tabloid style. But to use bogus ‘local newspaper’ mastheads and write them in pseudo journalistic styles, with references to their true source tucked away in tiny print, as the Liberal Democrats are again doing, is clearly stepping far over that line into being deliberately misleading.

The response from genuine local newspapers and journalists to Lib Dem mimicry of their publications has been predictably explosive. First to take aim at the latest wave of deceptive Lib Dem leaflets was the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, which issued a warning to readers about its fake rival – the ‘Northants Citizen’.

In a hard-hitting editorial, the Chronicle cited how the local Lib Dem leaflet described itself misleadingly as a “Free local newspaper”, warning readers:

“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 …  There’s even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.”

“Let’s be clear. It is nothing more than a political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news,” the Chronicle thundered.

Pete Gavan, the Editor of the Swindon Advertiser and Oxford Mail, also shared his dismay at the fake ‘Wiltshire Post’, saying:

“It’s very disappointing to see the Lib Dems trying to pass off this material as a ‘local newspaper’, which it most certainly is not. We work extremely hard in our communities to be the trusted impartial news source and actions like this only go to undermine that.”

The row has quickly escalated with the Society of Editors writing to Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, demanding an end to the misleading tactic “once and for all”.

The Society’s executive director, Ian Murray, commented:

“It seems that no matter how many times this issue is raised, the Lib Dems continue to pretend there is not a problem here. The simple fact is that if the party were serious about not attempting to mislead the public in this way then a plain – and large – Lib Dems logo on the front page of their local publications would do the trick.”

The editorial director of Newsquest local media group, Toby Granville, has also branded the Lib Dems a “disgrace” over the continuing ploy, after Darlington & Stockton Times editor, Hannah Chapman, posted a picture online of a Lib Dem leaflet calling itself the ‘Hambleton Herald’, which she received through her door.

In response, Granville blasted:

“Totally misleading the public by purporting to be a legitimate local newspaper and undermining our industry’s fight against fake news. Shame on you Lib Dems.”

The News Media Association, trade body for the regional and national press, has also now waded into the row, launching a campaign called ‘Don’t Be Duped’ urging the Lib Dems to end these misleading tactics.

Introducing the campaign, NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker wrote:

“Sadly, in recent months fake local newspapers published by the Lib Dems have started popping up again. Make no mistake, these publications are designed to fool you into thinking you are reading independent journalism. In fact, they are the exact opposite – party political propaganda sheets masquerading as real newspapers. It has been reported that some of the leaflets are not clearly marked as being produced by the Lib Dems. We think this cynical attempt to mislead you is wrong. It undermines trust in both politicians and independent local newspapers.”

The Lib Dems’ use of the ploy to mislead voters continues despite widespread criticism for the same low tricks at the 2019 general election – and the Electoral Commission subsequently warning that it shouldn’t continue.

In its report into the 2019 general election campaign, the Commission highlighted fake newspapers as one of the public’s key concerns about “misleading campaign techniques” during elections, singling out that “Some leaflets were designed to look like local newspapers. Others used colours normally associated with other parties”. Yet both such shameful ploys remain in evidence, for example, in Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran’s, latest ‘South Oxfordshire Observer’ leaflet.

Just as warnings of health risks to the public of continuing to leaflet during lockdown went unheeded, the concerns of the official body responsible for supervising our elections about the party’s deliberately misleading leaflets also appear to have fallen on deaf ears at Lib Dem HQ.

Such matters do not appear to concern the Liberal Democrats it seems, if it furthers their own narrow political interests.

The base idea of fake newspapers is clearly to fool people into thinking they are reading dispassionate journalistic reports and analysis on local politics – perhaps, even, a local newspaper endorsement – when in reality the content is of course only a highly sensationalised version of one party’s view.

As the Northampton Chronicle summed up perfectly:

“When political movements try to impersonate us, we are undermined. When members of the public realise they have been fooled by a medium that looks like ours, the next time they read journalism produced by us, they may trust it that bit less. This all leads to those in power becoming more powerful, more protected from scrutiny and less accountable to the public.”

An approach to politics that, if actions speak louder than words, seems sadly to have become a characteristic of the Liberal Democrats.

Have you seen any Lib Dem fake newspapers being distributed in your area? Please add a comment below with details or drop LibDemWatch a line direct through our website. We’ll be drawing up a full report of all misleading examples we’ve seen for submission to the relevant electoral authorities.


Stuart Coster: Is Lib Dem election campaigning “essential activity”? A “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home?

19 Jan

Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

Reports have been rolling in over recent days of Liberal Democrat activists breaching coronavirus rules to make dangerously opportunistic leaflet deliveries during lockdown.

With a far keener eye on elections that are still said to be planned for May than, seemingly, public safety, Lib Dems have wasted no time in kicking off their New Year campaigns – despite much of the country being in Tier 4 and lockdown.

While supporters of other parties observe government guidance to stay at home unless for essential activity, Lib Dem activists have been spotted shamelessly putting their political leaflets through doors from Norwich to Eastleigh and Basingstoke to Derby.

Yet in every case, where the party has been challenged by the local media, even advised by the police that there are “no exceptions” to the restrictions for campaign leaflets, the clear chorus in defence has been that Lib Dem HQ has advised them that it’s fine to continue.

In Norwich, for example, local Lib Dem councillor, David Britcher, admitted to the Eastern Daily Press that deliveries of his party’s ‘Focus’ newsletter had continued for around 10 days while the area was under Tier 4 “Stay at Home” restrictions, though halted once the latest national lockdown was announced.

Norfolk moved into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, but Cllr Britcher confirmed that his volunteers continued delivering until the 4 January announcement of a full national lockdown.

But as local Conservative councillor for Hellesdon, David King, told EDP:

“As councillors, we are supposed to be leading by example and only making essential trips, so it doesn’t feel particularly right to me. I do not see delivering political leaflets as essential travel and I would not ask any volunteers to do it.”

Meanwhile down in Eastleigh, local Conservative MP, Paul Holmes, has branded Lib Dem activists “deeply irresponsible” over similar newsletter deliveries under their Tier 4 restrictions.

Speaking to the Southern Daily Echo, Holmes said:

“At a time when we know the virus is spreading rapidly, local Liberal Democrats are engaging in unsafe physical campaigning which poses a risk to residents. Surely when we are all making enormous sacrifices and grandparents are going without seeing grandchildren to stop the spread of Covid-19, Eastleigh Liberal Democrats can see that putting out party political leaflets is wrong?”

Other parties are equally dismayed. Eastleigh Labour campaigner, Sam Jordan, who said that members of his family who are shielding had received Lib Dem newsletters, told the Echo: “I’m very disappointed and very angry. We suspended all physical engagement once the pandemic really took off.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire, according to the Andover Advertiser local residents have received copies of the ‘Andover South Gazette’ from the Lib Dems – a publication that sounds rather like one of the Lib Dems’ misleading fake newspapers that we heard so much about during last year’s general election.

Test Valley Liberal Democrats defended the party’s actions, saying that they had been acting “in accordance with national legal guidance and advice received by our HQ”.

But also speaking to the Advertiser, Hampshire Constabulary contradicted that advice, saying: “We have been made aware of campaign leaflets being delivered in the Andover area, for which there is no exception for under the previous Tier Four regulations and now the national lockdown”, the police reportedly also writing to the local Liberal Democrats with “appropriate advice”.

It has been a similar story in Basingstoke, according to reports in the Basingstoke Gazette  that the Lib Dems’ lack of respect for coronavirus rules designed to keep people safe is far from a new development. The second national lockdown began on 5 November, but local Lib Dem campaigners had reportedly been out delivering their ‘Focus’ leaflets in Mickleover regardless. Criticising the party’s activities, a local Conservative group spokesperson told the Derby Telegraph:

“No right minded person would dream of campaigning at a time like this whilst everyone else is focused on supporting Derby’s efforts to keep Covid-19 infection rates down … That is why the behaviour of the Lib Dems is particularly disappointing. It’s shameful and demonstrates a staggering lack of judgement and, above all, is hugely disrespectful to the public.”

Councillors from other party groups, the Reform Derby group and Labour, both also confirmed they had halted local deliveries on November 4.

So what is this guidance from Lib Dem HQ that local Lib Dem activists are quoting as carte blanche to continue with their leaflet deliveries, regardless of the resurgent pandemic?

Advice evident from Lib Dem HQ, as updated on 8 January 2021, continues to encourage leafleting, playing down the idea of the virus spreading on surfaces like glossy paper, despite official advice confirming that it can indeed be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Professor Peter Wahl, who is leading the UK Research and Innovation team on how coronavirus spreads on surfaces, has said:

“Apart from airborne direct transmission, indirect transmission via surfaces, in particular in public spaces, can play an important role in spreading the disease.” 

A study published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine has also revealed that the virus survives on cardboard for 24 hours. We all know this well enough by now and presumably Lib Dem activists, after coming in from delivering their leaflets into thousands of houses, like the rest of us take the time to clean the surfaces of items that come into their homes. Why? Because it’s a well-established risk of contagion, however much the party may wish to play with words and self-servingly slide out of it.

Slippery Lib Dem HQ advice to activists goes on to claim that “The current lockdown guidance and legislation expressly permit people to leave their home to provide voluntary services that cannot reasonably be undertaken from home”, offering a link to government guidance that purports to endorse this view. However, it is a typically stretched interpretation of those rules to imagine “voluntary services” extends, beyond helping those needing support during lockdown, to delivering self-promotional, political leaflets. Especially when the same rules are also peppered with references to only “essential activities” being permissible.

As the information at the given link makes crystal clear, “You must not leave or be outside of your home except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. This is the law.” Does leafleting to promote a political party sound like a “reasonable excuse” or an “essential activity”? Hardly.

What’s more, Hampshire police, at least, seem to agree, having told the Andover Advertiser that they saw “no exception” to Tier 4 or lockdown rules for the delivery of campaign leaflets.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Lib Dem HQ is giving defective advice to party to activists, which has the potential to put the public in greater danger of the virus spreading. Yes, other items continue to be delivered through letterboxes. But that should not be taken by Lib Dems as licence to put out all items that can or should be delivered. Lockdown rules are often contradictory but are designed as far as possible to limit activities that risk spreading the virus.

And, yes, it appears there may still be elections in May and it is important that democratic debate continues. But this is January. The pivotal point, as corona cases again rise, is what constitutes an “essential activity” and “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home. Yet revealingly, rather than deploy their own common sense in the public interest, the party’s local activists are happily quoting their HQ’s contemptibly self-serving guidance. Guidance which has now been contradicted by at least one police force.

Are the Liberal Democrats more interested in promoting themselves and trying to improve their political standing, than respecting coronavirus rules and keeping people safe during this currently resurgent pandemic?

On the basis of this evidence, that sadly does look to be the case. If you have seen Lib Dem leaflets being distributed during Tier 4 or lockdown restrictions in your area, please post the details and links to any local media coverage in the comments below – or email direct to LibDemWatch.