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Lib Dems accused of "imitating local newspaper" in UK’s closest marginal

The Liberal Democrats have been criticised for dressing up their campaign literature as trusted local newspapers in constituencies across the country

Billy Briggs
29 November 2019, 11.56am

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have been accused of attempting to mislead voters in the UK's most marginal seat by distributing a fake newspaper.

Campaigners for the party in Fife, Scotland, have been issuing a pamphlet called The North East Fife Gazette which claims to be a "Free Local Newspaper covering Cupar, East Neuk, Howe of Fife, Largo, Saint Andrews and Tay Bridge."

Small print at the bottom of page four, however, reveals that the publication was published and promoted "on behalf of Wendy Chamberlain (Scottish Liberal Democrats)" and "the Liberal Democrats, 8 to 10 Great George Street, London."

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The North East Fife constituency is the most marginal seat in the UK. The SNP only beat the Scottish Liberal Democrats by two votes at the 2017 General Election and the current contest is a straight fight once again between the Lib Dems and the SNP, according to the polls.

The Lib Dems were heavily criticised on Tuesday and accused of peddling misinformation in England after distributing fake newspapers with names similar to independent publications.

The North East Fife Gazette propaganda sheet distributed in Fife has a front page with the headline: "Two Votes In It" with a photo of the Lib Dem’s party leader in Scotland, Willie Rennie, and local candidate, Wendy Chamberlain.

The four page publication states under a masthead on the front page that it is a "free local newspaper".

Page two of the publication has a column entitled "News Comment" and a statement from Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson.

On page four, there’s a photo of the Lib Dem leader under the words, “The Future”, which is juxtaposed to photos of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on page three, which appear under the words, “The Past”

The back page includes a "special report on the best choice as our next MP".

Critics of the fake newspaper included a retired accountant in Cellardyke, Fife, called Iain Gray, who said: “Normally I do not read election material from parties, binning them on receipt. However, I found myself reading an election message from the LibDems, disguised as as a free Fife newsletter. A clear case of fooling the public.”

Other critics of the Lib Dems this week included Toby Granville, editorial director of Newsquest, a local newspaper group which owns titles in many marginal seats.

He said it was outrageous that the Lib Dems had produced a publication called the Gazette to promote their candidate in an area close to his company’s Basingstoke Gazette title.

“If this isn’t pulled I’ll advise all Newsquest editors not to publish any campaign news for your party,” he told the Lib Dems.

The four-page “Mid-Hampshire Gazette”, supporting candidate Paula Ferguson, has been delivered to homes in an area covered by paid-for Newsquest weekly the Basingstoke Gazette (known locally as the Gazette).

Other editors also criticised the papers, including the Yorkshire Post’s James Mitchinson who tweeted an image of the Lib Dem-produced North West Leeds and Wharfedale News.

He said: “Dear people of North West Leeds and Wharfedale: this isn’t ‘news’ as the masthead suggests.

“It’s political propaganda imitating local newspapers in order to borrow the trusting relationships that titles like ours in this region have worked so hard to build up with you. #fake news”

The Society of Editors called for requirements banning parties from aping existing newspapers and requiring information explaining who is paying to be printed more prominently in “large, bold typeface” on these front pages.

The Society’s executive director Ian Murray said: “It is ironic how it is often politicians who complain about fake news but then set out to at least blur the lines for readers – and in this case voters – by packaging their partial messages to ape independent newspapers.

“If political parties were genuine in their desire, often expressed, to both remove the effects of fake news and disinformation as well as support existing regional and local media they would take steps to ensure their political freesheets look markedly different to real newspapers.”

The Scottish Lib Dems did not reply to our requests for a comment, But a spokesperson for the party in London said in response to a Guardian report on similar newsletters in England: “we remain committed to communicating with people, and tabloid newspapers has been one way of doing this employed by all political parties for decades.”

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