Last week the Conservative Party – rebranded nationally as “Theresa May’s Team” – bought advertising space in a dozen local papers around the country to promote the Prime Minister’s general election campaign . Nothing wrong in that in principle: it’s a long-standing habit of political parties to pay for advertising. The towns and cities in question appear to be Parliamentary seats which the Tories are targeting to win. So far, business much as usual.
The commentariat has tended to criticise the tactic as a way of getting around spending limits for constituency election campaigns. It’s a targeted national campaign which doesn’t mention the local candidates so it’s not local spending, and it’s all within Electoral Commission rules.
Frankly, that’s a second-order complaint. The Conservative Party is simply doing what any advertiser would do given the opportunity. If it’s an unintended loophole in the spending rules, it can be put right. Much more insidious, and an example of further erosion of any semblance of standards in corporate behaviour, is the way in which the newspapers allowed the ads to be designed and placed.
What the local papers did – or, probably more accurately, what they were told to do by their corporate owners – was to accept the advertisement in the form of a wrap-around, with each paper’s normal masthead integrated into the paid-for “front page”. In other words, a blatant attempt to mislead readers into thinking their local paper was supporting Mrs May’s election campaign.
Defenders of the scheme have argued that people would easily see that it was an advertisement. Really? Two points here. First, at least on the fake front page of the Exeter Express and Echo, the words “ADVERTISER’S ANNOUNCEMENT” are set in a white font on a pale grey background. This is invisible to anyone looking at the paper from a distance, on a newsstand for example.
Second, it’s not unheard of for national papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail to trumpet their support for a political party as editorial matter on their front pages. If they can do it, why should people be surprised that the local papers are doing the same?
The advertising impact isn’t limited to people who buy the paper: indeed, they will soon discover the real front page inside and put Mrs May in the recycling. What the technique achieves is massive exposure of Mrs May’s slogans because the papers – typically weekly ones – are displayed on newsstands for a whole week. These stands are often to be found in prominent places in major retailers: in Exeter, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have separate stands for the Echo in the entrance areas.
The edition of the Exeter paper that carried the fake front page also ran a leader article entitled “Delivering facts not fake news” . The irony of this was lost on the paper’s editor. In response to my complaint to him about the fake front page, Mr Parker said:
“The material carried this week was part of a nationwide advertising initiative by the Conservative Party and the decision to publish it was made solely for business reasons as we are, after all, a business.
“It was made clear that this was an advertising arrangement with the Conservative party and is something we are at the moment exploring with other political parties.
“Again, any future decisions will be based on the commercial side of the business and will have absolutely no bearing on the way the Express and Echo covers editorially any news stories whether or not they are of a political nature.
“I cannot emphasise enough that we are a totally independent news operation and proud of that fact and will continue to be so.”
Taking advertisers’ money is one thing. Trying to mislead your readers – who may not be interested in the distinction between the commercial and editorial sides of the business – is quite another. And since the rules on political balance don’t apply to the press, we can assume that only those parties who can pay out hard cash for wrap-arounds will be included in the exploratory discussions Mr Parker refers to.
Up in Westmoreland, where the local paper also ran a fake front page, there is some community anger, threatening a boycott of the rag . Something worth considering everywhere else, since even if local papers no longer care about their reputations, their owners do care about sales and profits.
Meanwhile Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and all other retailers giving prominence to local papers should move the newsstands carrying the fake front page to the nearest back room until normal service is resumed.
 For a list of papers and constituencies, see https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/how-the-conservatives-are-using-local-adverts-to-get-around
 A longer version of the article is in the online version at http://www.devonlive.com/8203-in-an-age-of-fake-stories-we-always-provide-trusted-news/story-30314208-detail/story.html