The Society of Editors has pledged to expose any political publications that attempt to imitate “real, independent” newspapers.
The organisation, which represents editors at national and regional titles across the UK, also warned today that Labour manifesto plans to clamp down on fake news could lead to an “Orwellian nightmare”.
The Society is stepping up its response to campaign materials seen this election that mimic the mastheads and style of traditional local newspapers.
Society executive director Ian Murray said today: “Put simply, 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?”
We also called on the Electoral Commission to tighten regulations around campaign material, demanding imprints appear more prominently and banning the use of newspaper mastheads and copycat formats.
Murray said today the Society plans to play its part in exposing publications, whether political or otherwise, that “seek to pass off as real, independent newspapers”. It will encourage its members to do the same.
“There are still too many public bodies that believe they can fool the public into believing they are receiving impartial, balanced information if they present it in the familiar guise of a newspaper or local magazine,” he said.
“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.”
Murray suggested mastheads such as the Conservative Courier, Labour Letter, Lib Dem Latest, Scots Nats Sentinel, or Brexit Party Beacon could easily be used by the parties if their intention is not to deceive readers into believing they are a legitimate and trusted newspaper.
“Surely it would be simple to brand the publications clearly with a party name and logo and leave no room for doubt it is not at all independent and impartial.
“And ensure there is clear information that the freesheet is not allied nor supported in any way by any and all local newspaper companies.”
Lib Dem candidate Chuka Umunna was asked about the practice on BBC Breakfast this morning by presenter Dan Walker, who said: “How is this trustworthy use of local news? When it is very difficult, unless you read the small print, that that is not a normal newspaper?”
Umunna said: “I’m sorry, look I think most members of the public, when they receive literature, particularly at this time, are very cognisant of the fact they are being sent literature by political parties.”
Party leader Jo Swinson later told Huffpost UK she was “astonished that this is a story” given how long the campaign tactic has been in use.
“This is not new. Literally not news. People like reading different things. We write letters. We do newsletter-type leaflets. We do newspaper-type leaflets.
“Because you are getting messages out to people in different ways. So I just think it’s kind of a bit of a strange criticism.”
Six local media publishers have written to party leaders Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson calling for them to end the campaign tactic and instead help ensure the future of sustainable journalism.
An open letter from Reach, Newsquest, Archant, JPI Media, Iliffe Media and Midland News Association said: “To discover that local media is under attack by those who had purported to be supporters is extremely worrying.
“Why are political parties passing off their fake newspaper propaganda as trusted local news?
“Not only are you taking advantage of our highly trusted credentials, you are also active-ly undermining our business models.
“Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but this has to stop.”
Labour’s fake news inquiry plans
The Society of Editors has also spoken out today against plans from Labour to establish an inquiry into fake news, expressing concerns over press freedom and freedom of speech.
Labour’s manifesto states: “We will consult media-sector workers and trade unions to establish an inquiry into the ‘fake news’ undermining trust in media, democracy and public debate, and on a legal right of public interest defence for journalists.”
Press Gazette understands Labour plans to appoint an independent expert chair support by a panel of experts from journalism and related fields such as trade unions, academia, social media and technology.
The review would look at how fake news spreads across online platforms, how the public interacts with it, what new measures could be put in place to counteract it, and how to make readers more sceptical of the news sources they see.
Policy responses from other countries will be looked at to see how measures such as those requiring social media companies to issue corrections on the feeds of users who have seen fake news posts have worked.
Murray said: “The Society of Editors naturally welcomes any initiative that recognises the very real harm that fake news does to society and a vibrant democracy.
“However, there should always be a note of caution with regard to any steps proposed by any party to attempt to curtail what amounts to free speech and freedom of expression.
“While the aspirations of the Labour Party’s proposed crackdown on fake news appear well motivated, the inevitable result of any enquiry and measures set in place to contain fake news raise questions over who will decide what is true and what is false?”
He added that the only way to counter fake news and disinformation was through a “robust, self-regulating, plural media”.
“None of the parties have covered themselves in glory on the subject of media freedom during this current political debate, but it is the future we should be concerned about,” Murray went on.
“We are in real danger of walking into an Orwellian nightmare where the state decides who has the right to have an opinion if we are not truly careful.”
Right picture: Nichola Sherriff