News UK chief operating officer David Dinsmore has backed the call for political parties to “immediately end” the practice of mimicking local newspapers with their election campaign material.
Dinsmore, speaking in his role as chairman of the News Media Association which represents national and regional titles across the UK, said the tactic “harms and undermines our democratic society”.
Press Gazette and the Society of Editors have both called on political parties to end the tactic.
The Liberal Democrats were criticised last week for producing campaign material that looked like a local newspaper front page under the “Mid-Hampshire Gazette” masthead in an area covered by Newsquest’s Basingstoke Gazette.
The party used similar Gazette, News and Observer mastheads for a number of geographical regions. Party leader Jo Swinson defended the tactic as “old as the hills” and “part of getting our message across”.
The Conservatives and Labour have produced similar election materials made with copycat local newspaper formats. Imprints showing who produced them, as required under electoral law, are often in small font.
Dinsmore said: “It has been worrying to see political parties seeking to undermine and abuse the trusted relationship local news brands enjoy with their audiences”, warning that such actions have “far-reaching” consequences.
“Audiences could be led to believe that they are reading independent local news rather than party political content,” said the former Sun editor.
“Or, they could see the charade for what it is –a cynical attempt by politicians to mislead the public.
“In both scenarios, trust in both politicians and local news media is badly damaged as a result.”
Press Gazette has also called for the UK Electoral Commission to tighten regulations around campaign material, demanding imprints appear more prominently and banning fake newspaper mastheads and copycat formats.
Dinsmore went on: “The News Media Association is calling on all political parties to immediately end this damaging practice which harms and undermines our democratic society.”
Dinsmore’s call was echoed today by Basingstoke Gazette editor Katie French, who wrote that there is “something morally repugnant about packaging an advert in the format of a local paper”.
“An all-out ban isn’t about red versus yellow or blue versus red,” she went on. “This is about right and wrong.
“And banning these manipulative and damaging assaults on democracy is simply the right thing to do.”
Earlier in the election campaign the NMA put pressure on Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to answer five questions about how they would help the local news industry if they win the race for Number Ten next month.
The organisation asked for action on recommendations made in the Cairncross Review, on BBC News encroaching into commercial news territory, and for the promised repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 to finally take place.
The NMA also asked the Tory and Labour leaders to invest more of the Government’s “considerable” advertising budget into commercial news media, rather than tech giants which currently take a “huge proportion” of ad spend.
Dinsmore said: “We want them to take steps to protect press freedom, crack down on the tech giants who use our content yet contribute next to nothing back into the industry, and move Government advertising spend back into trusted news media channels.
“By doing this, whoever leads the next government will help ensure a bright future for the news brands which contribute so much to our democratic way of life.”
News UK owns the Sun and Times newspapers.
Picture: Press Gazette