Fake journalist profiles have been used to launch a new website purporting to cover local news in a UK town, an HTFP investigation has found.
Photos taken from a stock picture archive were used by the Bournemouth Observer, which claims to be a new independent title serving Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch, to illustrate a series of profiles of its journalists.
The Observer, which also offers a range of advertising opportunities, had initially contacted HTFP about a potential directory listing on our site, but we decided to investigate after Paul Giles, a representative of the title, refused to provide basic details about the backgrounds of the journalists listed or even confirm they were real people.
Some of the Observer’s content has also raised questions about whether AI is being used to produce its copy after police failed to find any record of two incidents reported by the site.
A ‘Meet the Team’ page on the website, which has now been deleted following our enquiries, listed 11 members of staff with photos and biographies, but we cross-referenced the headshots with an online reverse image search tool and discovered that all 11 pictures were stock images.
At least seven of the images originated from the same stock photo archive – istockphoto.com
The biography for David Roberts, described as the Observer’s “esteemed editor” with “a career in journalism that spans decades”, also contained inconsistencies.
It claimed he has been “lending his expertise and leadership to the newspaper for several years”, despite the Observer only being launched last month as an online-only title.
The profile of news reporter Simon Foster described him as a “middle-aged journalist” and an “acclaimed local voice in Bournemouth, Poole, and Christchurch” while motoring writer William Alexander is said to be a “seasoned journalist with over 15 years of experience in the realm of automotive journalism”.
However, our searches have yielded no record anywhere online of their previous careers, or those of any of the other listed ‘journalists.’
Mr Giles has refused repeated requests to provide further evidence that the journalists listed on the site are real people, to explain why they were illustrated with stock photos, or to clarify whether their biographies were written by AI tools.
Stories on the site, which began publishing at the start of June and ultimately aims to launch in print, include a mixture of local and national content, as well as a page purporting to show letters by readers about a variety of subjects in the Bournemouth area.
Local stories include coverage of an alleged “heist” on an unspecified date at a Tesco supermarket in the suburb of Southbourne, which quoted an apparent eyewitness as saying she and a friend “felt like we were in the midst of the infamous Los Angeles riots.”
Another story reported on a cyclist being critically injured at “a Bournemouth roundabout” on 16 June.
We contacted Dorset Police whose media office told HTFP it was not aware of either incident and said the stories did not give sufficient information to enable them to search the force’s logs for reported incidents.
We then asked Mr Giles to provide us with a date or police case reference number regarding the Southbourne incident but he was unable to do so.
He did however accept the date on the story about the cyclist was incorrect, with the Observer’s piece subsequently being updated to coincide with that of a similar incident on 22 June which was covered by other local outlets including Newsquest’s Bournemouth Echo.
However, the other details in the Observer version of the story remain vague and do not specify that the incident took place at the Landsdowne Roundabout, as was reported by the Echo.
Although Mr Giles declined to answer many of our specific questions, he was willing to provide the following information via email.
“We are proud to announce the inception of the Bournemouth Observer, an ambitious and wide-ranging newspaper dedicated to serving the communities of Bournemouth, Poole, and Christchurch,” he wrote.
“This digital-to-print transition will see the launch of a newspaper that provides a comprehensive spectrum of coverage, encompassing News, Business, Motoring, Environment, Finance, and many more areas of interest to the locals.
“As we navigate this exciting journey, the focus of the Bournemouth Observer will always be centered [sic] on delivering insightful, current, and compelling information on topics crucial to our readers. Through our online platform and the imminent transition to print, our readers will have easy access to high-quality content.
He went on: “The Bournemouth Observer takes pride in its powerhouse editorial team, each of whom brings a wealth of experience and unique perspectives to their respective fields.
“Our esteemed editor, David Roberts, is the bedrock of our team. His long-standing career in journalism, distinguished by his knack for finding impactful stories and his unwavering dedication to journalistic integrity, has been fundamental to his role at the Bournemouth Observer.
“Our diverse team of experts includes Simon Foster, spearheading news; William Alexander, heading up motoring; David Spalding, taking charge of business; Rupert Mathews, managing finance; Sophie Daniels, enlivening the entertainment section; Elisabeth Bancroft, leading environmental coverage; Lisa Withing, curating health topics; Carmen Beaumont, nurturing the gardening beat; and Judie Knight, who offers discerning reviews.
“A cadre of dedicated administrative and general staff supports this team, each playing an integral part in maintaining the smooth operation of the Bournemouth Observer.
“The inception of the Bournemouth Observer stems from a desire to reinstate the traditional ethos of newspaper journalism, which puts content above clutter.
“Today’s local newspapers often overwhelm their readers with excessive advertising, thereby undermining the quality and relevance of their content. The Bournemouth Observer is committed to charting a different course.
“We are resolute in our mission to cover topics that resonate with our local readers, offering them a hassle-free journey through our pages. By focusing on delivering rich, engaging content, we aim to stand apart from our competitors and become a trusted source of information for our readers.
“We envisage the Bournemouth Observer growing from strength to strength. Our initial push will be backed by a comprehensive marketing strategy to establish our presence in the local news marketplace. However, our long-term growth will be fueled by the quality of our offerings and the loyalty of our readers.”