Political parties have been warned to stop sending out political advertising that mimics local newspapers, after a series of examples were spotted during the General Election campaign.
The Society of Editors, which represents the editors of the country’s top newspapers, said it will expose the worst offenders that attempt to pass off political advertising as real, independent newspapers.
Local news organisations, including Newsquest, have accused various parties of misleading voters by publishing material that looks similar to the local media in the area.
All the major parties have been criticised for using the tactic, with one editor threatening to boycott any media from the Liberal Democrats entirely if they did not apologise for using a similar masthead to their own newspaper.
Similar pamphlets and papers have been published in a number of constituencies by all three major parties, with constituencies targeted including Chelmsford, Putney, Eastleigh, and Finchley and Golders Green.
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “If a politician or their party can attempt to deliberately mislead you by cloaking their partisan messages in the disguise of an independent and trusted local newspaper, what else are they attempting to camouflage?
“And while those behind such publications will argue there is no desire nor attempt to deceive by their actions and that – as Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said – this sort of practice is ‘as old as the hills’, that does not make it any the more acceptable.”
Voters across the country have complained that the format of election material is misleading, as disclaimers about who has published it often appear in very small print.
Devon resident Ben Cooper received a paper entitled “Totnes Future” through his front door, which had the headline: “Brexit deal agreed and ready to go.”
Only text in small print at the bottom of the page identifies it as Conservative electioneering material.
He told the PA news agency: “It’s just dishonest, isn’t it?
“Unless you were really looking for it, you would have no chance of seeing the imprint and knowing it was a campaign material sent out for the Tories – it is so tiny!”
Mr Murray said: “If there is no wish to deceive, then why give the publication a similar title to the existing independent newspaper in the area, as is often the case. If the intention is not to pull the wool, why not simply call a political freesheet the Conservative Courier, Labour Letter, Lib Dem Latest, Scots Nats Sentinel, or Brexit Party Beacon?
“What irony that all of the main parties have pledged their support to protect and maintain a vibrant local press and yet then set out to undermine the public’s trust in the medium.
“Should a reader simply mistake a political freesheet for a version of their regular paper or, worse, believe their local editor has sided with one party over another then the destruction of decades, in some cases over a century, of impartial, non-partisan reporting will be assured.
“It is time the practice was brought to an end, for the sake of local newspapers but also, I would contend, for the sake of local politics. The public are not fooled for long and will not forgive politicians who attempt to take them for mugs.”