Anger at `offensive' big poll leaflets
by Kate Bowman (Exclusive)
Northern Echo 28th August
A LEAFLET encouraging people to vote in the referendum on a North-East regional assembly has been branded "offensive propaganda".
Photographs of six people expressing their views in the Government brochure have sparked anger among the Tories, campaigning groups and charities over its use of images.
Thousands of copies the pamphlet, entitled Have Your Say, are being sent to homes across the region - urging residents to post their votes before the November 4 referendum day.
Neil Herron, of the No campaign, said that images of a black woman, an Asian man and a pensioner rejecting the idea of a regional assembly by showing a "thumbs down" sign were portraying a subliminal message.
The three photographs used to portray people backing an assembly all show young white people with their thumbs up - looking more vibrant and purposeful.
"It is offensive propaganda," he said. "This is a blatant attempt to influence people by saying that if you are young, dynamic and fresh thinking then that is the way we are moving forward.
"If you are a member of a minority group or old then this brochure suggests you will say No. It suggests that these people are not moving with the times."
The Shadow Minister for Local and Devolved Government Affairs, Caroline Spelman, echoed his concerns.
"The leaflet seems far from objectively representative, even just from looking at the photographs," she said.
"Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been spent on an information campaign which seems to have amounted to little more than Government propaganda, leaving people who are being asked to vote on the regional assembly no clearer as to its exact powers or how much it will cost."
Suzanne Fletcher, leader of the Liberal Democrats on Stockton Borough Council, said she had already received an e-mail from one constituent who was shocked about the use of the photographs.
"I think it is an appalling gaffe on behalf of the Government, putting out information that portrays that elderly people and those of ethnic minority won't understand the issue," she said.
The pictures were also condemned by groups for the elderly, which claimed the image of the old man was stereotypical, negative and did not represent the strong voice of the older generation.
Dave Punshon, chief executive of Age Concern on Teesside, said: "Older people are the ones who tend to vote more and will be affected by a regional assembly. Their say is just as important."
Robert Stansfield, of Pensioners Voice in the North-East, said: "Elderly people are simply being switched off. These pictures speak a thousand words. There is an element of suspicion about exactly what message the Government is trying to say."
But a spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - which issued the leaflet - disputed any suggested that the images were contrived.
"These are real people from the North-East who we spoke to and had their own opinions," she said. "We are not suggesting that these people are representative of their entire age group or race."
Professor John Tomaney, chairman of the Yes 4 the North-East campaign in support of the assembly, said the choice of images was disappointing.
"We urge the government to learn the lessons of this as the referendum debate is too important an issue to be clouded by distractions like this," he said.
Labour MP for Stockton South, Dari Taylor, revealed that she had already returned her copy to John Prescott's office saying she was appalled at its content generally.
"The imagery is so poor and not once does it mention Teesside. It is very disappointing,"she said.
"If anybody believes it will make people confident that a regional assembly will work for them then they need to think again."
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