By Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors

Should political parties be permitted to produce election material that resembles a local newspaper?

That question has been thrown to the fore in this current general election after it has emerged that all three of the main parties attempting to win the December 12 poll have been producing partisan freesheets that appear to ape or at least resemble existing local publications.

Has the time now come, the newspaper industry is asking, for such practices to be banned completely, especially when an election is underway?

Compared to some of the other issues currently being fought over by politicians and their supporters, whether or not a political advertisement too closely resembles a true newspaper seems an also-ran subject.

And yet the Society of Editors, as well as the News Media Association (NMA) and other industry leaders, would say the issue of whether politicians are being honest is extremely relevant to this and any other election.

Put simply, if a politician or their party can attempt to deliberately mislead you by cloaking their partisan messages in the disguise of an independent and trusted local newspaper, what else are they attempting to camouflage?

And while those behind such publications will argue there is no desire nor attempt to deceive by their actions and that – as Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said – this sort of practice is “as old as the hills”, that does not make it any the more acceptable.

If there is no wish to deceive then why give the publication a similar title to the existing independent newspaper in the area, as is often the case. If the intention is not to pull the wool, why not simply call a political freesheet the Conservative Courier, Labour Letter, Lib Dem Latest, Scots Nats Sentinel, or Brexit Party Beacon?

Surely it would be simple to brand the publications clearly with a party name and logo and leave no room for doubt it is not at all independent and impartial. And ensure there is clear information that the freesheet is not allied nor supported in any way by any and all local newspaper companies.

If politics were not such a murky business and those who enter it soon realise they must leave their goody-two-shoes at the door, we could attribute the rise in election freesheets passed-off as local newspapers perhaps to naivety. But even if that does play a part then it seriously undermines the oft-given assurances by politicians of all hue that they understand and value the importance of the regional and local press.

What irony that all of the main parties have pledged their support to protect and maintain a vibrant local press and yet then set out to undermine the public’s trust in the medium. Should a reader simply mistake a political freesheet for a version of their regular paper or, worse, believe their local editor has sided with one party over another then the destruction of decades, in some cases over a century, of impartial, non-partisan reporting will be assured.

Imagine if a political party were able to ape a local radio station news output, or present their own TV news debate in this manner using a similar set to the local news broadcast? There would be an outcry and rightly so.

And while political advertising is permitted on both TV and radio – as well as in newspapers – there are strict, enforceable laws than ensure the public is not mislead as to who is behind the message and how it is paid for. Yet as the current rules stand, political parties are free to pass-off their newsletters in the guise of local, trusted, independent newspapers with no consequences.

Going forward the Society of Editors will be playing its part in exposing such publications, political or otherwise, that seek to pass off as real, independent newspapers. There are still too many public bodies that believe they can fool the public into believing they are receiving impartial, balanced information if they present it in the familiar guise of a newspaper or local magazine. We will be calling on our members to call-out these publications.

It is time the practice was brought to an end, for the sake of local newspapers but also, I would contend, for the sake of local politics. The public are not fooled for long and will not forgive politicians who attempt to take them for mugs.