Campaigners are demanding an apology from a weekly newspaper which published a “disgraceful” four-page wraparound advertising the Conservative Party.
The Hastings Observer was one of a number of regional newspapers to publish the wrap on the front of the title just days before the election, in a move which caused a political storm.
Now a petition calling for an apology from the weekly for “prostituting” its front page has been started on the website Change.org and so far been signed by more than 1,100 people.
The Observer was one of seven Johnston Press newspapers to publish the Conservative wrap featuring a message from Prime Minister David Cameron, which carried a small strapline denoting it as an ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
The title also published a piece inside the paper by editor-in-chief Gary Shipton, explaining the use of the advert and stressing that the Observer did not support any political party.
Among the other newspapers to to publish the wrap were the Lancaster Guardian, Eastbourne Herald and Local World title the Lincolnshire Echo, which insisted on a larger notice depicting it as an advert.
Other regional papers have also published wraparounds from political parties, including The Wirral Globe, which featured a Labour Party advert last week.
The petition, started by local man Colin Gibson, calls on the Hastings Observer to “apologise for the thoroughly disgraceful act of prostituting your front page as a paid advertorial to the Conservative Party, disguised as news at a crucial time in the general election, whilst pretending to be a ‘local’ newspaper. Then get out of town.”
Matt Cornish, former editor of the Daventry Express and Craven Herald, described the wrap as “inexcusable” on Twitter and said he would have refused to run it if he was editor of the Observer, because it looked like a real front page.
Following complaints on social media about the wrap, the Observer has published a piece in response in which Gary said the Conservative Party was able to purchase the advertising space in the same way as any other advertiser.
He wrote: “Had a similar request been received from any other lawful political party they too would have been entitled to purchase the advertisement on the same terms and conditions.
“Indeed, other parties have purchased wraps in other parts of the country and this particular advertisement appeared in a similar format in other newspapers published both by ourselves and other companies.
“We did insist that the advertisement feature was clearly labelled as such, not least because the artwork provided to us had been given an ‘editorial’ look by the political party.
“In addition, we inserted a prominent article within the main paper making clear that this was an advertisement and that its acceptance did not imply that we endorsed either the party or the message.
“We support no political party and remain proudly independent.”
A spokeswoman for Johnston Press said: “A number of our titles ran a paid-for piece of advertising for the Conservative Party last week.
“The wrap was clearly labelled as advertising and, in the case of the Hastings Observer, it was made clear in a prominent story inside the paper that the title is editorially independent and supports no party.
“As political advertisements are an important part of local democracy the Hastings Observer would have accepted similar advertising from any other lawful party.”