At the beginning of this year, social media had fun for several weeks ribbing a whole bunch of Conservative MPs for their leaflets. These leaflets were very definitely green and not at all blue, generally did not mention the word ‘Conservative’ and had the legally-required promotional information printed in such small type that it was invisible to all but the most determined.
The leaflets created the impression that these true blue Conservatives were trying to pass themselves off as belonging to the Green Party.
The MPs, unsurprisingly, got a lot of stick for this, indeed we joined in ourselves. Nine months later, pictures of those green leaflets still do the rounds from time to time.
Slick, deceptive and prone to error
Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) seems to have learned from the experience. The Conservatives may have given up trying to run the country but they are straining every sinew to find the next new way of pulling the wool over your eyes.
The latest leaflets from the party are currently being pushed through letter boxes all over the Central Bylines region. As has been pointed out by the indefatigable Carol Vorderman, Reform Political Advertising and many others, these ones are still not blue, still don’t contain the word ‘Conservative’ and still bear a virtually-invisible imprimatur.
This time, they all look like local papers and not like a political leaflet at all.
They’re nicely produced and superficially convincing but unfortunately for their beleaguered MPs, appear to have been prepared with little care and attention. In some cases, the mistakes are so egregious that it’s impossible to believe any member of the constituency concerned even saw them before delivery.
Darren Henry’s ‘Broxtowe Chronicle’ contains a heart-warming paragraph about a million pound investment for Waltham Cross Young People’s Centre. That particular centre is in Broxbourne, 120 miles away.
Meanwhile, the content of the ‘Wrexham News’, distributed by CCHQ on behalf of MP Sarah Atherton, focuses on Gloucester. Also 120 miles away.
In short, these leaflets are slick, deceptive and prone to error. You could hardly want for a better metaphor.
The bigger picture
There is, however, a bigger problem with these leaflets than the lack of care that has been put into their production. There is a risk of people being hoodwinked into believing that the information therein is researched, fact checked and subject to IPSO oversight. MPs are presenting their information as journalism when in fact, it is party political content with all its usual distortions and evasions and subject to no accountability at all.
The result may be that public trust in journalists and politicians will be further eroded at a time when both already languish at the bottom of the ‘most trusted professions’ index.
Not falling for it this time
In Lincoln, MP Karl McCartney distributed a leaflet with the title ‘Lincoln Chronicle’. This has angered local people the more acutely because, 15 years ago, there was actually a paper of this name in the city, as Byline Times has pointed out.
The BBC asked McCartney to come on Look North to talk about the issue. He declined to appear but instead provided a statement criticising the Labour Party and the BBC.
There are signs, however, that the public are not falling for it this time. Those interviewed by the BBC were not impressed. They pointed out the way the party lines are being presented as objective fact and the difficulty of finding the legally-required promotional information.
The joke may yet end up on the MP. His chances of being successfully re-elected at the next general look slim. As a Lincoln city councillor told us: “It’s ironic that Karl McCartney is going out of business just like the Chronicle did.”
The ‘Lincoln Chronicle’ is not the only leaflet to have borrowed the name from a genuine publication. In Derbyshire, the High Peak Reporter served the town of New Mills for more than 100 years until it folded in 1998. Now the name has been resurrected for Conservative Party purposes. The constituency’s MP, Robert Largan has doubled down on the deception by promoting his leaflet as ‘positive news’ for High Peak.
Respected academic and High Peak resident, Professor Michael Corcoran, is disgusted. He likens the appropriation of these titles to the practice of undercover officers taking the names of dead children from gravestones to construct false identities.
A live issue
What would happen, however, if one of these fake newspapers carries a name that is still live in the area? Well, perhaps we are just about to find out.
Our research has revealed that not only was there a previous publication called the High Peak Reporter but there is still a business in the constituency of that name which shares an address and phone number with one of the area’s genuine local papers, the Glossop Chronicle.
We asked the Glossop Chronicle if they were aware of Largan’s leaflet and if they feel his use of the name gives the impression that the paper endorses his material. Thus far, we have yet to receive a response.
Only four months ago, just before the local elections, Largan was singing the praises of local newspapers, highlighting the important role they play in upholding democracy and holding politicians to account.
You couldn’t make it up, could you?
UPDATE: On 22 August, Chris Bird, a former director of Manchester City and the owner of the Glossop Chronicle, made a public statement to clarify that Quest Media is an independent media group and its titles have no political affiliation. He called on Largan to publicly apologise and make a donation to charity. A spokesperson from Largan’s office said that “use of the name had been a genuine error, with no intention to deliberately mislead”.