Cobb allegedly forged an email to pretend that the press office responded to a request for comment on a story claiming the Lib Dems sold voter data to the Remain campaign for £100,000 during the EU referendum.
War of words
The claims emerged after a running battle between the party's press office and investigative news website openDemocracy since the story ran on 13 November with no comment from the Lib Dems.
The row escalated to the point where the Lib Dems brought in a top law firm to demand an apology for the story and for a number of changes to be made to it.
But 'evidence' that the Lib Dems press office had responded to the allegations before the story was published was swiftly revealed to be fake because the email in question was dated the day before OpenDemocracy journalist James Cusick asked the Lib Dems for comment.
Story given wider prominence
The comms blunder has resulted in blanket coverage of the story the press office had been concerned about, which had gone largely unnoticed when it was published last month.
It has now been covered by broadcasters such as the BBC, Sky, Channel 4 and ITV, and by newspapers including The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Metro.
Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, commented: "Corruption, suppressing evidence of foreign interference, breaking electoral law – all allegations involving members of the current government – are obviously a bigger deal than an amateur forgery from the press office of a party that has no chance of winning the next election."
In a comment piece published on Sunday, she also said: "But given how prolific Jo Swinson's Liberal Democrats have been in calling out the scourge of fake news during this election campaign, it's worth noting how busy they've been creating it themselves."
Lib Dem response
Earlier this week Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson confirmed the party is conducting an investigation into the matter.
Meanwhile, Cobb has taken down her LinkedIn and Twitter accounts.
She was appointed as head of media early last year – despite never having worked in a press office – as part of a shake-up of the party's comms. Cobb had previously worked in the Lib Dems' Parliamentary Adviser Unit.
Extraordinary story. Lib Dem HQ faked email. Leadership used top law firm to pursue journalists. What did Jo Swinson know about this scandal and when? https://t.co/z0KDGAqQLb— Iain Martin (@iainmartin1) December 1, 2019
In a statement, the party said: "The Liberal Democrats refute allegations made in OpenDemocracy's piece of 13 November. However, we have been made aware that the information OpenDemocracy subsequently received from the Liberal Democrats was incorrect."
They added: "We have suspended a member of staff involved and are following due process."
In response to several specific questions posed by PRWeek, including whether a review will be conducted into the workings of the party's press office, a Lib Dem spokesperson said: "As you will appreciate, we do not comment on internal staffing matters. An individual has been suspended. This is now a staff disciplinary issue and there are clear rules and guidelines on what can and cannot be made public."
The 'emailgate' scandal is the latest in a series of recent controversies surrounding the Lib Dems' comms team.
Earlier this week actor Hugh Grant, who supports tactical voting against the Conservatives, took exception to the way the party had portrayed his support for Luciana Berger, the Lib Dem candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.
The Lib Dems tweeted that it was "great to see Hugh Grant supporting @lucianaberger" and added: "Only the Lib Dems can take seats off the Tories - and together we can stop Boris and #StopBrexit."
But in a retweet of the post, Grant said: "Your second para is not true."
Election 2019: Hugh Grant SAVAGES Remain Alliance in Lib Dem Twitter spat ‘Not true!’ https://t.co/0OQyf21YSD— Brexit Home (@BrexitHome) December 3, 2019
And last week the Society of Editors criticised the Lib Dems, and other parties, for presenting political propaganda in the guise of independent local newspapers.
Society of Editors calls for new guidelines banning political parties from mimicking existing newspapers after outrage over Lib Dem 'Gazette' campaign leaflethttps://t.co/ueIeBe0IaH pic.twitter.com/TOs9a9E04n— Press Gazette (@pressgazette) November 26, 2019
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "It is ironic how it is often politicians who complain about fake news but then set out to at least blur the lines for readers – and in this case, voters – by packaging their partial messages to ape independent newspapers."
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