Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

As campaigning steps up ahead of May’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats have come under fresh fire from local newspapers and the Society of Editors over a new spate of the party’s fake newspaper leaflets.

Hot on the heels of the Lib Dems’ recent uncaring refusal to stop distributing political leaflets during lockdown, the party has once again been caught putting out propaganda mocked up to mislead voters into thinking they are reading independent local journalism.

Examples of phoney ‘newspapers’ distributed by the Lib Dems in recent weeks include the Welwyn Hatfield News, Wiltshire Post, South Oxfordshire Observer, Andover South Gazette, and Maidenhead News – all displaying fake names, using non-party colours, and any references to their political origin in tiny or peripheral text.

No doubt few would see much wrong with giving political leaflets a more reader-friendly, tabloid style. But to use bogus ‘local newspaper’ mastheads and write them in pseudo journalistic styles, with references to their true source tucked away in tiny print, as the Liberal Democrats are again doing, is clearly stepping far over that line into being deliberately misleading.

The response from genuine local newspapers and journalists to Lib Dem mimicry of their publications has been predictably explosive. First to take aim at the latest wave of deceptive Lib Dem leaflets was the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, which issued a warning to readers about its fake rival – the ‘Northants Citizen’.

In a hard-hitting editorial, the Chronicle cited how the local Lib Dem leaflet described itself misleadingly as a “Free local newspaper”, warning readers:

“Nowhere on the front page does it identify itself as a party-political freesheet produced by the Liberal Democrats. Only in tiny print on the back page …  There’s even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.”

“Let’s be clear. It is nothing more than a political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news,” the Chronicle thundered.

Pete Gavan, the Editor of the Swindon Advertiser and Oxford Mail, also shared his dismay at the fake ‘Wiltshire Post’, saying:

“It’s very disappointing to see the Lib Dems trying to pass off this material as a ‘local newspaper’, which it most certainly is not. We work extremely hard in our communities to be the trusted impartial news source and actions like this only go to undermine that.”

The row has quickly escalated with the Society of Editors writing to Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, demanding an end to the misleading tactic “once and for all”.

The Society’s 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.”

The editorial director of Newsquest local media group, Toby Granville, has also branded the Lib Dems a “disgrace” over the continuing ploy, after Darlington & Stockton Times editor, Hannah Chapman, posted a picture online of a Lib Dem leaflet calling itself the ‘Hambleton Herald’, which she received through her door.

In response, Granville blasted:

“Totally misleading the public by purporting to be a legitimate local newspaper and undermining our industry’s fight against fake news. Shame on you Lib Dems.”

The News Media Association, trade body for the regional and national press, has also now waded into the row, launching a campaign called ‘Don’t Be Duped’ urging the Lib Dems to end these misleading tactics.

Introducing the campaign, NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker wrote:

“Sadly, in recent months fake local newspapers published by the Lib Dems have started popping up again. Make no mistake, these publications are designed to fool you into thinking you are reading independent journalism. 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 Lib Dems’ use of the ploy to mislead voters continues despite widespread criticism for the same low tricks at the 2019 general election – and the Electoral Commission subsequently warning that it shouldn’t continue.

In its report into the 2019 general election campaign, the Commission highlighted fake newspapers as one of the public’s key concerns about “misleading campaign techniques” during elections, singling out that “Some leaflets were designed to look like local newspapers. Others used colours normally associated with other parties”. Yet both such shameful ploys remain in evidence, for example, in Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran’s, latest ‘South Oxfordshire Observer’ leaflet.

Just as warnings of health risks to the public of continuing to leaflet during lockdown went unheeded, the concerns of the official body responsible for supervising our elections about the party’s deliberately misleading leaflets also appear to have fallen on deaf ears at Lib Dem HQ.

Such matters do not appear to concern the Liberal Democrats it seems, if it furthers their own narrow political interests.

The base idea of fake newspapers is clearly to fool people into thinking they are reading dispassionate journalistic reports and analysis on local politics – perhaps, even, a local newspaper endorsement – when in reality the content is of course only a highly sensationalised version of one party’s view.

As the Northampton Chronicle summed up perfectly:

“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.”

An approach to politics that, if actions speak louder than words, seems sadly to have become a characteristic of the Liberal Democrats.

Have you seen any Lib Dem fake newspapers being distributed in your area? Please add a comment below with details or drop LibDemWatch a line direct through our website. We’ll be drawing up a full report of all misleading examples we’ve seen for submission to the relevant electoral authorities.