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Newsquest threatens Lib Dems with news blackout over local paper mimicry

Toby GranvilleNewsquest has threatened the Liberal Democrats with an election news blackout over what it called an “outrageous” bid to pass off a campaign pamphlet as a local newspaper.

As reported by HTFP, Basingstoke Gazette editor Katie French criticised the party after it published a “free newspaper” with a similar name to one of its titles.

The party has defended the publication – entitled the Mid Hampshire Gazette – which had been produced in support of its candidate for Winchester Paula Ferguson.

But, posting on Twitter, Newsquest editorial director Toby Granville, pictured, branded the move “outrageous” and demanded the pamphlet was pulled from circulation.

He wrote: “This is outrageous [Lib Dems], passing yourselves off as the Gazette newspaper in same area as our Basingstoke Gazette.

“If this isn’t pulled I’ll advise all Newsquest editors not to publish any campaign news for your party in build-up to #GE2019.”

The company has since made an official complaint in a letter to the Lib Dems’ legal department, a copy of which has also been sent to the Electoral Commission.

It calls on the Lib Dems to cease publication of the Mid Hampshire Gazette immediately, destroy any remaining copies, and issue a public apology.

The letter states: “The publication flagrantly mimics for partisan political purposes the name, style, layout and content of an independent local newspaper.

“It is our belief that it is intended to mislead in an attempt to pass it off in the minds of readers as having an association with our own title or another independent newspaper.

“Newsquest Media Group does not authorise, sponsor, endorse or approve any Liberal Democrats’ publications.  Indeed, its stated public stance at election time is one of editorial impartiality.

“Your publication therefore casts damaging and false imputations on Newsquest Media Group’s editorial independence and seriously undermines the relationship of trust and confidence between readers and local newspapers generally.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson responded to Toby’s comments by mistakenly describing him as the “Basingstoke editor.”

The spokesperson told HTFP: “This is the Basingstoke editor complaining about something that was not distributed anywhere near his circulation area.

“As far as we know he has not contacted us directly and we will be happy to talk with him about this if he does.

“In the meantime, we remain committed to communicating with people, and tabloid newspapers has been one way of doing this employed by all political parties for decades.”

The News Media Association and Society of Editors have also criticised political parties for “dressing up” their material as independent journalism.

The NMA said: “Political parties should not be seeking to copy the look and feel of independent local newspapers with their campaign material.

“By scrutinising candidates on behalf of the public in communities across the UK, local news brands play a vital role in upholding democracy. Dressing up party political material as independent journalism undermines this and damages trust in both news media and politicians.”

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, added: “It is ironic how it is often politicians who complain about fake news but then set out to at least blur the lines for readers – and in this case voters – by packaging their partial messages to ape independent newspapers.

“If political parties were genuine in their desire, often expressed, to both remove the effects of fake news and disinformation as well as support existing regional and local media they would take steps to ensure their political freesheets look markedly different to real newspapers.”

JPIMedia editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford and Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson have also spoken out about the practice after another Lib Dem publication surfaced in Yorkshire.

Jeremy wrote on Twitter: “In an age of fake news, this is outrageous and the media should take a stand against this practice.”

James cited a publication produced by the party which is circulating on his patch called the North West Leeds & Wharfedale News.

He said: “Dear people of North West Leeds and Wharfedale: this isn’t ‘news’ as the masthead suggests. It’s political propaganda imitating local newspapers in order to borrow the trusting relationships that titles like ours in this region have worked so hard to build up with you. #FakeNews”

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  • November 26, 2019 at 11:59 am

    I totally agree with this “..Dressing up party political material as independent journalism undermines this and damages turst in both news media and politicians.”
    But can I ask if NMA took this stance when a number of free papers allowed party political wraps around their titles under the paired own masthead at the last ejection and can NQ confirm none of theirs allowed PP wraps to be published?

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  • November 26, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    “..Dressing up party political material as independent journalism undermines this and damages turst in both news media and politicians.” I totally agree but can I ask if NMA took this stance when a number of free papers allowed party political wraps around their titles under the paired own masthead at the last ejection and can NQ confirm none of theirs allowed PP wraps to be published?

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  • November 26, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    Pressed send twice while trying to correct two typos
    ‘Papers’ and ‘election’
    not paired and ejection


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  • November 26, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Employee X has a good point. At the last election, my local Newsquest title carried five separate wrap-around for the existing Conservative MP and then as a General Election candidate in just six months. There was one for the Labour candidate which I understand had some content removed before it was allowed for publication. The typeface of the Conservative ads was very similar to that of the main paper except headlines were sans serif unlike inside the real paper. I made a formal complaint as there was no identification that the Conservative wraps were adverts. The editor conceded that this was wrong and subsequently “advertisement feature” was added on subsequent ones. To be fair, during the same period there were also clear examples of wrap-arounds going on Johnston Press (at the time) and Trinity Mirror (also at the time) titles elsewhere in the country. But accepting this money does undermine the arguments used in this story by Newsquest. I’m also unsure threatening to withdraw editorial coverage from part of the electoral process is the right way to tackle an important legitimate democratic issue.

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  • November 26, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    This is very much a case of double standards as I too remember many local weekly frees taking the money and turning the other cheek by allowing local party propaganda to be published under the papers own masthead.
    I would suggest NQ get their own house in order first rather than adopting this holier than thou stance and urge other publishing groups to think twice before accepting pressure from the commercial suits to run political cover wraps.
    The public aren’t fools,some will see it for what it is while others may believe the ‘story’ shows the papers ‘true colours’ which could prove far more costly and damaging than turning these political wraps down.

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  • November 26, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    I’m sure the good people of the Basingstoke area are not so easily fooled as to believe this “..outrageous” bid to pass off a campaign pamphlet as a local newspaper.”

    What they’re more likely to believe is an election campaign message passing itself off as the main front, lead, inside back and back cover news on a local paper under the papers own branding when in fact it’s a paid for political advert using copy cat style in s mock up of their local weekly.

    @Employee x and @Chris Morley make very valid points which highlights the need to be whiter than white before issuing threats

    It’s totally wrong and false news certainly needs to be stamped out but in this example surely it’s the kettle calling the pot black

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  • November 26, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Personally I wouldn’t worry. From the NQ papers i’ve seen there is nothing to worry about.

    They are dull, badly researched, appalling written and offer little to no insight worth reading.

    Even so, threats? And in public? Very cheap.

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  • November 26, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    Oh and if I were a Lib Dem council leader i’d think twice about giving NQ any statutory notice cash – there must be a few hyper locals that would appreciate the money.

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  • November 26, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    As someone based in the Basingstoke area and a former reader and employee for the Basingstoke Gazette, this is a quite ridiculous non story!
    Basingstoke and surrounding area is based in an entirely different constituency (one of the safest Conservative constituencies in the country) I nor anyone I know has seen this product in Basingstoke and I doubt that baring the odd copy any exist in the town.
    I was intrigued also by the quote from the NMA “Political parties should not be seeking to copy the look and feel of independent local newspapers with their campaign material.”
    Has anyone compared the products? other than they contain the word Gazette in the title there isn’t any.

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  • November 26, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    It’s ridiculous really, unless NQ have copyrighted the word Gazette and as mentioned in another comment above I doubt anyone would be confused, it may be worth the NQ hierarchy checking which of their papers allowed wraps first before trying to defend a non event and something they have been guilty of previously

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  • November 27, 2019 at 9:50 am

    To be fair, many NQ rags have pretended to be real newspapers. And would NQ have complained if the Lib Dems paid for a wraparound?

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  • November 27, 2019 at 10:32 am

    @From the north
    Exactly that and I totally agree with the points above, Newsquests stance on this is ill thought out and hypocritical as it appears they have published wrap arounds on some of their papers previously as mentioned by a previous commenter.
    Perhaps an anonymous staffer or ex NQ person could let us know which NQ titles carried political party paid for wraps in the past?

    If they are guilty of political party wrapping then NQ have gone about this in a bull in a china shop manner levelling accusations and issuing threats when, if the research had been done first or the local gazette editor had thought twice ,they might have realised the local LibDems are only doing something some NQ editors or commercial chiefs may have happily allowed in and around their papers in the past.

    I also agree it’s insulting to Basingstoke residents to accuse them of mistaking a pamphlet with an actual newspaper, always assuming the Basingstoke Gazette has a higher pagination than the leaflet of course.

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  • November 27, 2019 at 11:09 am

    What is outrageous is that NQ buys up decent local newspapers, makes experiences staff redundant, has them replaced by BBC/Google/Facebook funded juniors who cover ever wider areas as “local news” bring “subbed” 100s of miles away (particularly if they are given subsidies) but is happy to take the profits, which end up in the pockets of US shareholders.

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  • November 27, 2019 at 11:38 am

    Presumably, if Newsquest were to carry out a news blackout of the Lib Dems during the election campaign, it would also refuse to carry news of any political party in the same period, in order to provide fair and balanced coverage.

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