North Bedfordshire Liberal Democrats have been criticised for delivering campaign material designed to look like a local newspaper.
The ‘North Bedfordshire Observer’ has hit doormats in the Borough over the last couple of weeks and has been printed to look like a tabloid-sized newspaper, containing articles presented as genuine editorial.
A smaller magazine-style publication called ‘Bedfordshire in Focus’ has also been delivered to some areas.
While print in both says they are published and promoted by ‘H Vann on behalf of N. Beds Liberal Democrats’, it fails to state that Mr Vann is a Liberal Democrat councillor.
They also contain headlines using words such as ‘exclusive’ and ‘editorial’ that suggest the content is independently written.
This isn’t the first time campaign material like this has been called into question.
The Electoral Commission called for “real change” on misleading party political leaflets after they found they were “among the major concerns of the public” in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
In its UK Parliamentary General Election 2019 report, the Electoral Commission said: “Campaigners, candidates and political parties need to take greater responsibility for the presentation and content of campaigns they run and the impact of their activities on public confidence in elections.”
The News Media Association (NMA) has also now launched ‘Don’t be Duped’, a campaign calling out political parties who present less-than-transparent campaign material.
They campaigned against fake local newspapers published by political parties during the 2019 general election.
But publications produced by the Liberal Democrats that look like newspapers have been published across the country again.
“Make no mistake, these publications are designed to fool you into thinking you are reading independent journalism,” said Henry Faure Walker, chairman of the NMA.
“In fact, they are the exact opposite – party political propaganda sheets masquerading as real newspapers.
“It has been reported that some of the leaflets are not clearly marked as being produced by the Lib Dems.
“We think this cynical attempt to mislead you is wrong. It undermines trust in both politicians and independent local newspapers.”
The NMA has now written to Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Commission to call for an end to fake local newspapers.
Bedford Independent opinion
Trusted local media is vitally important in being able to keep local people informed about what is happening on their doorstep.
The way the Liberal Democrats have presented their campaign material undermines the efforts of genuine journalists, destroys trust in journalism and deceives constituents.
The Bedford Independent and our colleagues at other responsible news sources work hard to check facts and present articles in a fair and balanced way.
We make a significant effort to provide comment in our articles from all sides and on the rare occasion we include opinion, it is clearly marked and only added if it helps to establish a greater understanding of the issue.
We also stick to a strict code of conduct and have a clearly defined complaints procedure that is overseen by an independent regulator.
Presenting the ‘North Bedfordshire Observer’ as a newspaper and ‘Bedfordshire In Focus’ as a magazine is a calculated effort to disguise politically biased material at a time when transparency of information is more important than ever.
“Misleading campaign techniques”
All political parties were criticised for misleading campaign practices in the 2019 general elections by the Electoral Commission.
They reported a large number of complaints raising concerns about the “presentation, tone and content of election campaigns” with voters concerned about “misleading campaign techniques by campaigners from across the political spectrum”.
They highlighted concerns that some leaflets were designed to look like local newspapers, while statistics were also incorrectly quoted or presented in misleading ways and without important context.
The Electoral Commission said they have reminded campaigners that voters are “entitled to transparency and integrity, and called on all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly”.
Henry Faure Walker added: “Politicians at the top of Government – and no less than Her Majesty The Queen – have acknowledged the vital importance of our work providing the public with trusted information during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Why would any right-thinking politician seek to undermine this?”
The Bedford Independent contacted Cllr Henry Vann for comment on the publications, criticism from the Electoral Commission and the need to be transparent when fake news is a growing problem.
He confirmed he has “long been a supporter of a strong, diverse local press that interrogates important issues affecting residents.”
Adding that “residents rightly expect local councillors and candidates to keep in touch with them regularly”.
He argued that this format of leaflet has been “used by local campaigners of all parties and community activists in Bedford Borough for decades.
“It even says ‘Delivered by Liberal Democrat volunteers’ right at the top of the front page.
“It has nothing to do with ‘fake news’ which is when candidates, politicians and activists put out misleading or inaccurate stories and is a far more pressing concern.”
We asked Cllr Vann if the North Bedfordshire Liberal Democrats would print future campaign material in this format but he declined to comment further.
The Bedford Independent has so far only seen local 2021 campaign material presented in this way from the Liberal Democrats.
If you have seen campaign material from any Bedford Borough political representative that you believe is presented in a misleading manner, please email email@example.com.