The local press has been caught up in a pre-election political storm after a four-page wraparound advertising the Conservative Party appeared on several regional newspapers.
With less than a week to go until the general election, the wrap has been published on the front of several weeklies covering marginal seats including the Lancaster Guardian, Lincolnshire Echo, Eastbourne Herald and Hastings & St Leonards Observer.
The wrap, described by one former weekly editor as “inexcusable,” features a message from Prime Minister David Cameron urging readers to vote Conservative in next Thursday’s poll.
But while one of the publishers involved has defended the move as “good business sense,” a Labour candidate in another of the areas targeted claimed large numbers of readers had told her they were cancelling their subscriptions to the paper.
It is understood that the wrap, which carries a small strapline denoting it as an ‘advertiser’s announcement,’ has run across seven Johnston Press newspapers in total.
It also appeared on Local World title the Lincolnshire Echo, which insisted on a larger ‘advertiser’s announcement’ notice.
Among those critical of the decision to print it was Amina Lone, Labour’s candidate for the marginal Lancashire seat of Morecambe & Lunesdale, which is part of the Lancaster Guardian’s patch.
Said Amina: “I’ve been inundated with people emailing and calling me, saying they’re appalled and some are going to cancel their subscription.”
She added: “(Labour) approached the paper before Christmas about having a wraparound and we were told categorically they were not going to do them.
“To say that you’re impartial and then not be impartial is absolutely disrespectful to your readers. It’s just not cricket.”
He added that he would have refused to run it had he been the Observer’s editor, stating the fact it was a paid-for advertisement was not made “as obvious as it should be.”
However Lincolnshire Echo publisher Steve Fletcher said: “The decision to publish the wrap made business sense and all political parties would have been welcome to make the same approach.
“It is clearly marked as an advert. We have carried ads from most parties across our titles in Lincolnshire in the run up to the election, including a wrap from UKIP in our papers covering the Boston and Skegness constituency.
“The main parties spent £9.1m on advertising during the 2010 General Election campaign and it makes business sense for the regional media to try and take a fair share of this spending.
“I know a number of other titles from other groups have also carried the wrap.”
In a piece inside the paper explaining the Observer’s move, editor-in-chief Gary Shipton said: “Let me make it quite clear, this newspaper does not support any political party.
“We have always accepted advertising from legitimate parties – although we have never seen a promotional push on quite this scale before.
“This major advertising campaign on the eve of a neck-and-neck General Election shows that despite every form of lobbying, national politicians see the local press as one of the most important and effective means of communicating their message.”
A Johnston Press spokeswoman said: “We have run the Conservative wrap today across a small number of our titles and are currently looking into the issue raised by Amina Lone.”
HTFP is awaiting a comment from the Conservative Party on the issue.