Fact-checking the election: News industry hits back at political parties over fake newspapers

Monday, 2nd December 2019, 5:11 pm
Updated Monday, 2nd December 2019, 5:11 pm

With 10 days to go until the UK goes to the polls on December 12, disinformation continues to be a stubbornly persistent theme, write Lydia Morrish and Alastair Reid.

First Draft, a global non-profit organisation, is keeping close tabs on disputed content and media manipulation during the general election campaign.

Its collaborative investigations over the last week for its CrossCheck project cover fabricated tweets attributed to Jeremy Corbyn, a “misleading” video by the BBC, councils fielding complaints from disgruntled teen voters and more disputed content in the form of fake newspapers and graphics.

Fake Corbyn tweet circulates after terror incident

On November 29 a man stabbed and killed two people, as well as injuring three others, at an event for rehabilitating prisoners in London. He was chased onto London Bridge by civilians before being shot dead by police.

As the news and rumours spread across social media and the world sought to make sense of events, some people shared a fabricated tweet from Jeremy Corbyn which accused police of “murder”.

This should hardly need saying, but these are fake Jeremy Corbyn tweets about #LondonBridge. They're not on his timeline, not on @deletedbyMPs (via @brokenbottleboy) pic.twitter.com/HnQODYDpq0

— Alastair Reid (@ajreid) November 29, 2019

There is no evidence the tweets had been sent. First Draft is continuing to investigate.

Fake news(papers) continue to roll off the political press

Following the slew of party campaign materials masquerading as newspapers that First Draft has uncovered over the election campaign, the News Media Association released a statement criticising political parties for their tactics.

Political parties' campaigning material imitating newspapers damages trust in both news media and politicians. #trustedelectionnews #GE2019 pic.twitter.com/3m1LEDtOZr

— NMA (@newsmediaorg) November 26, 2019

The statement said local news brands “play a vital role in upholding democracy” and campaigning materials imitating newspapers “undermine and damage trust” in the news media and politicians.

But last week, First Draft uncovered fresh examples of party campaign materials of the ink-and-paper sort.

The Conservatives published a newspaper in Stevenage claiming a Brexit deal was “agreed and ready to go”. First Draft has reached out to the party for comment.

Also, a new Lib Dem paper emerged in Tunbridge Wells.

it happened to me: i got a fake Lib Dem newspaper in the post pic.twitter.com/qjV6NuYbM0

— polly smythe (@pollysmythe) November 28, 2019

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Dem leader, defended the use of newspapers as political advertising, saying the tactic was “as old as the hills”.

There are now at least 17 locations where political parties, including the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, have published such newspapers.

BBC edited TV debate footage of Prime Minister Johnson

On November 23, the BBC was accused of misleading the public after airing edited footage of the previous evening’s ‘Question Time’ TV debate.

Many on Twitter, including prominent journalists, accused the BBC of purposefully editing out footage of audience members laughing when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked a question around trust in politics.

The footage shown in the broadcaster’s Saturday lunchtime news package, on November 24 and posted to the broadcaster’s streaming channels, omitted 1.5 seconds of audience laughter and used a clip of Johnson giving a similar answer to a different question.

A video shared by Aaron Bastani, a political commentator and supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, shows the original clip followed by the edit. It has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

This is utterly extraordinary. @BBCNews has edited out the audience laughing at Boris Johnson being questioned on trust. The first part is from last night’s debate, the second is from BBC News at 1pm today. #ge2019 pic.twitter.com/PjhAQsWLoH

— Aaron Bastani (@AaronBastani) November 23, 2019

In a reply to journalist Peter Oborne, who flagged the edit, the BBC Press Office said the footage was shortened for timing reasons.

This clip, which was played in full on the 10 o’clock news last night, was shortened for timing reasons in today’s lunchtime bulletin. We’ve fully covered Boris Johnson’s appearance on the BBC QT special, and the reaction to it, across our outlets.

— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) November 23, 2019

In a surprising move for the corporation, the BBC then released a statement of apology for the edit on Monday.

A BBC spokesperson said: “Although there was absolutely no intention to mislead, we accept that this was a mistake on our part, as it didn’t reflect the full reaction to Boris Johnson’s answer. We did not alter the soundtrack or image in any way apart from this edit, contrary to some claims on social media.”

Welsh party Plaid Cymru attacks Labour with graphic about spending claims

A graphic created by Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru surfaced on November 25 scrutinising the Labour Party’s spending plans.

Published on the party’s website, it compares Labour’s capital spending pledges to Scotland and Wales, stating Labour has pledged to invest £0 in Wales.

It also said the Labour Party “takes Wales for granted” and central government disregards Wales, spreading a common narrative used to criticise the three most popular parties.First Draft approached Plaid Cymru for comment.

While the text on the full webpage explains the £0 figure is reference to capital investment spending, not overall spending, the graphic shared on social media and as part of the post doesn’t make this explicit.

The Labour Party pledged to spend an additional £3.4 billion on the budget for Wales if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister.

Plaid Cymru’s post was mostly shared on Facebook by party representatives and has had more than 4,460 interactions on the platform. The post is still on the party’s site.

Councils falsely accused of excluding 18- and 19-year-olds with pre-printed postal ballots

CrossCheck partner Full Fact alerted First Draft to photos posted by Twitter users of postal vote slips which had the date of birth category partially filled. First Draft had been investigating different instances at the same time.

Hey @BorisJohnson this is a friends postal ballot, is your government deliberately trying to exclude 18 and 19 year olds or are ypu just useless? Or both? pic.twitter.com/0SaD11PtfI

— Steve Keyworth (@stevekeyworth) November 26, 2019

Local councils stood accused of excluding people born in the 21st century from postal ballots.

People from Lewisham, Bromley and other London boroughs raised the issue. However, Lewisham Council responded to one user saying: “There are different templates for voters born in 2000 and over.”

Afternoon, there are different templates for voters born in 2000 and over. Thanks.

— Lewisham Council (@LewishamCouncil) November 25, 2019

Lewisham’s Electoral Services Manager, Jamie Baker, told First Draft the purpose of pre-printing is designed to reduce the number of rejected postal votes due to people writing the day’s date instead of their date of birth.

“The number of postal voters born in the 2000s has increased dramatically over the last year but we currently have no evidence that the pre-printing of 20 is causing an issue for them. The rejection rate for younger people is lower than the average,” he said.

First Draft is a global non-profit that tackles disinformation and media manipulation. CrossCheck is our global network for collaborative reporting and research between newsrooms. Ali Abbas Ahmadi and Matteo Moschella also contributed to this report.