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18 February 2021

NMA Raises Concerns Over Lib Dem Freesheets

The News Media Association has joined calls for an end to political freesheets which mimic local newspapers after evidence surfaced of the Liberal Democrats publishing newspaper-style publications in local communities.

The NMA has long campaigned against propaganda papers published by political parties which look like independent local newspapers, pointing out that they harm trust in local media.

The NMA said: “It is imperative that political parties work to support local journalism, not undermine it with political propaganda masquerading as independent local news. 

“As well as deceiving the public, these freesheets risk a loss of sales and advertising for local news publishers, both of which are a vital stream of revenue for the industry, particularly during the pandemic.

"Without local newspapers, there would be no independent news brands holding local councils and those in power to account.”

The Liberal Democrat Party has recently circulated the Welwyn and Hatfield News and the Northants Citizen in the patches of the Welwyn and Hatfield Times and the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.

The Northampton Chronicle and Echo have warned readers about the Citizen, which has been described as a “free local newspaper”, calling it a “political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news. Nowhere on the front page does it identify itself as a party-political freesheet produced by the Liberal Democrats.

“Instead it uses a design and layout familiar to local newspapers. There's even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.

“The articles are blatant political grandstanding with no attempt to offer any balance or right of reply.

“Our journalists, regardless of what some may think, have no political bias and neither does our newspaper. We are regulated by IPSO - the Independent Press Standards Organisation - and our newspapers answer to them should members of the public believe we have breached the Editor's Code. None of this applies to the Northants Citizen.

“When political movements try to impersonate us, we are undermined. When members of the public realise they have been fooled by a medium that looks like ours, the next time they read journalism produced by us, they may trust it that bit less.

“This all leads to those in power becoming more powerful, more protected from scrutiny and less accountable to the public.”

After writing to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, the Society of Editors executive director, Ian Murray commented: “It seems that no matter how many times this issue is raised the Lib Dems continue to pretend there is not a problem here.

“The simple fact is that if the party were serious about not attempting to mislead the public in this way then a plain – and large – Lib Dems logo on the front page of their local publications would do the trick.

“It just doesn’t seem to make sense for the party to continue down this road, upsetting the local newspaper who I’m certain wishes to treat them in the same way as all other parties when it comes to coverage, and appearing to mislead the public.

“In my letter to Mr Davey I have asked him to intervene to sort this matter out once and for all.”