Candidates at the Tiverton and Honiton by-election have been criticised for distributing “fake” news publications in their bids to swing voters.
Conservative and Liberal Democrat campaigners are accused of putting out election literature aping the appearance of independent newspapers and magazines.
The Lib Dems are trying to capture the seat of Tiverton and Honiton from the Tories on Thursday after Neil Parish resigned in scandal in May. Tiverton was one of seven communities identified as a “news desert” in a report published last week.
The constituency is covered by the Mid Devon Gazette which has one reporter covering four editions.
Criticism has centred on “Devon’s Choice”, an eight page booklet billed on its cover as a “by-election special”.
The publication’s front page asks “Local mum set to be next MP?” and promises “Our view on the by-election”. The cover is illustrated with a picture of Conservative candidate Helen Hurford, though her affiliation with the party is not mentioned.
One Tiverton by-election magazine was promoted by a Conservative Party Agent
Despite the editorial furniture, Devon’s Choice is not a conventional editorial publication. A note at the bottom of the booklet’s back page discloses it has been “Promoted by Lucille Baker on behalf of Helen Hurford”. Baker lists herself on Linkedin as a Conservative Party agent.
Some commentators have said Devon’s Choice resembles Devon Life (below), an independent magazine published in the county by Archant.
Paul Lashmar, an investigative journalist and academic at City University in London, told Press Gazette: “Making election material look like a newspaper or periodical is misleading unless it is clearly stated that it is election material and the name of the political party is on the front.
“The ‘magazine’ Devon’s Choice is possibly the worst example I have seen of this, what seems to me, to be an unethical practice. To local people who have received it it looks a lot like the county magazine Devon Life and its design is similar to local magazines like the Marshwood Vale.”
He said : “This is fake news, fake journalism and flying under a false flag. All political parties do this in elections.”
The Marshwood Vale is a free community magazine distributed in Dorset, Devon and Somerset.
One Twitter user identifying herself as a Tiverton resident said she had been misled by Devon’s Choice.
I am a Tiverton resident.I thought this was the free periodical we get from Devon and took me a while to realise it was not.Tories have also sent a yellow folded leaflet pretending to be lib dem but then negative stuff against https://t.co/9mSKLCv2qB this legal?
— Helen Fensome (@pamalalel) June 17, 2022
Devon’s Conservatives were not the only party to catch flak for their election lit design.
Lib Dems publish mock newspaper
The Liberal Democrats put out a mock newspaper: “Tiverton News Courier” which claimed on its front page that: “More and more people are backing local resident, Lib Dem Richard Foord, in Thursday’s by-election.”
Another Lib Dem production: “Our Devon” (below), mimics a magazine, introducing “the man tipped to be our next MP” on the front cover with what it promises is an “exclusive interview”.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said “All our campaigning literature in Tiverton and Honiton including tabloids makes clear it’s from the Liberal Democrats on the front page.
“Having a strong local media plays a critical role in holding those in power to account and we have worked closely with local newspapers in Devon throughout this by-election campaign.”
Although the Tiverton News Courier discloses in a small front page note that it is “Paid for by the Liberal Democrats”, Our Devon does not appear to do the same.
Press Gazette has approached Hurford’s team for comment.
Lashmar said the election materials do “conform to election law but in my view it is unethical, it is passing off. It pretends to be something it is not, and at a time when journalists are under attack for bias, it brings journalism into disrepute.”
Devon Life editor Andy Cooper said: “To be brutally honest, I am struggling to get too uptight about it.
“I have looked at the publication people seem to be getting exercised about and it doesn’t look much like Devon Life to me. And I imagine its content would make that perfectly clear too. I’m going to trust the electorate to make the same distinction.”
This is not the first time UK party campaigners have received backlash for dressing election material in journalistic clothes.
At the same election the Conservative Party received much scorn after its press office rebranded itself “Factcheck UK” for the duration of a party leaders’ debate.
Featured pictures: Neil Merrick via Paul Lashmar and Devon Life (Archant) front page screenshot