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Native Advertising in UK Newspapers: Departmental Spending

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

How much his Department has spent on native advertising in UK newspapers since the end of the transition period. (913902)

How much his Department has spent on native advertising in UK newspapers since the end of the transition period. (913905)

How much his Department has spent on native advertising in UK newspapers since the end of the transition period. (913929)

It is very difficult to follow that, Mr Speaker.

We recognise that newspapers are the lifeblood of communities, and we have negotiated an unprecedented partnership with the newspaper industry. Since 1 January, paid advertising has appeared in up to 600 newspapers across the UK, including 60 titles predominantly directed towards ethnic minority communities. We have also supported 105 Scottish titles that reach 3.3 million people—over half the population of Scotland.

Regional and local newspapers received at least 60% of the funding allocated from January to March 2021. All the titles in the press partnership have been selected independently by the media planning and buying agency OmniGov. We publish spending on monthly as part of routine Government transparency arrangements, and we regularly review the cost-effectiveness of that spend against audience surveys, focus groups and operational data.

Food producers and manufacturers in East Lothian are in despair at the additional costs, paperwork and procedures brought about by Brexit, costing orders and threatening jobs. Would the Minister care to pay for an advert in the East Lothian Courier setting out the facts of Brexit, not the fiction that has been promoted in other paid outlets and adverts?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. Not only would I be happy to pay for an advertisement in the East Lothian Courier; I would be happy to come to Haddington to support Craig Hoy, the excellent Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate standing in the Scottish parliamentary elections, who will be a strong voice for East Lothian in Holyrood, just as the hon. Gentleman is here in Westminster.

In Government-sponsored ads on the alleged success of Brexit, the same three or four companies have been highlighted in at least 16 newspapers throughout the UK. Are these the only companies that the Government could actually find that would be willing to discuss the benefits of Brexit?

No, there is a limitless list, and I could take up the rest of the day by running through all the businesses and all the business people who believe that the Government’s approach is right. One thing I would not be able to do, however, is to find many businesses that would be prepared to endorse the reckless approach towards a second independence referendum that the Scottish National party is pushing. I cannot think of a single reputable business voice that thinks the priority for Scotland now is constitutional uncertainty and wrenching Scotland out of the partnership for good that is the Union.

Let us go to Chris Law. That is not Chris Law. I do not care what anybody says, that is definitely not Chris Law—in which case, I am going to go to spokesperson Stewart Hosie.

In relation to these native adverts regarding the so-called benefits of Brexit, the Advertising Standards Authority says that

“Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such”

and that marketers—in this case, the UK Government—

“must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications”.

Some newspapers do say “Ad features sponsored by the UK Government.” Others say, “in conjunction” or “in association”, which is less clear. Many simply say “sponsored” but not who by, and at least one newspaper describes the UK Government—the marketer—as a “contributor”. Why have the Government, as the marketer, chosen to flout the ASA code in this way?

I have been furnished with no evidence of any flouting of the code. Of course if there are any complaints that have been raised by readers or citizens, we will of course investigate them. But it is the case that the Scottish Government themselves, entirely understandably, devote tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money to also furnishing content in newspapers such as The Press and Journal, The Courier and even a newspaper called The National, which I understand has some popularity among some communities in Scotland.

There are many examples of what I am talking about, and the Government do not know them. That the Minister does not know is to his shame. Rule 7.2 of the ASA code makes it clear that:

“Marketing communications by central…government…are subject to the Code”

and rule 3.5 says:

“Marketing communications must not materially mislead by omitting the identity of the marketer.”

So let me ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in terms of the code: why have the UK Government, by omitting their own name, chosen to mislead the public?

I am very happy to put my own name and that of the UK Government to all of this material, and I am also proud of the contribution that we have made to supporting independent press and media titles across Scotland. It is vital, as we move towards the Holyrood elections, that we have a strong and vital independent press and that newspapers such as the Glasgow Herald, The Press and Journal, the Dundee Courier and others should hold the Scottish Government to account for what has been happening over the last 14 years.

Good morning, Mr Speaker, and I also hope that the same press hold the UK Government to account. Does the Minister not agree that the fact that the UK Government need to buy news stories to promote Brexit, rather than relying on companies to share their success themselves, is a sign that Brexit is an utterly failing project?

No, I would not say that. I have a great deal of respect and affection for the hon. Member, and that is why the work that we do in advertising in these titles is work that we do in conjunction with the devolved Administrations. We work with them in order to make sure that we are placing content appropriately, not least of course to help people keep safe during the covid pandemic. The Scottish Government of course also devote money themselves to advertising and supporting newspapers—quite right too; that is something that is appropriate at this time. Of course, he and I will disagree on certain policy questions, but on the broad point about keeping our media live and vital, I know that on that at least we are at one.