Tim Farron MP writes… The ASA and me – a response

I’m aware that my signing of a letter to the ASA about the power of prayer has caused a stir. I thought I should just clarify what I actually think on this.

I completely understand why some of you are concerned. It’s not a well-worded letter – the reference to the ASA providing indisputable evidence is silly, and the implication that people should seek faith healing at the expense of medical intervention is something that I just don’t believe in. For what it’s worth, I also think that the Fabrice Muamba reference is crass. So on all those fronts, I should just say sorry and not bother defending myself. I shouldn’t have signed that letter as it was written, so I apologise for putting some of you in quite a difficult position.

However, my reasons for agreeing to raise a concern with the ASA are simply these:

a) The ASA genuinely do a brilliant job, but they really aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit
b) As a Christian I believe that prayer helps – although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.
c) Freedom of speech – an organisation that makes a faith based claim that is clearly subjective (in the same way that a political party makes subjective claims) should be able to make those claims within reason.

To be honest with you, the ASA decision offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a Christian perspective.

As always I am happy to answer any question and talk through any concerns – please email me at [email protected].

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • Tim

    I am with Graeme on this (despite our little spat on tax yesterday).

    I do not care whether the regulators are determining the appropriateness of a cosmetic advertisement, a religious advertisement or one from a pharma company (despite them of course not being allowed to advertise – rightly). They all need to be treated the same and absolutely no special dispensation for religion – religious organizations already benefit more than enough from that.

    If you think the ASA is not fit for purpose then suggest to your pals that the statutes/laws are changed – you are in Government now remember

    That is why I still disagree with you.

  • Well, this is much better. So what we’ve got down to is “Should the ASA be ruling on this stuff at all?” which is a reasonable argument to have (and I don’t know what I think, don’t know enough about it).

    It’s been interesting to watch people trying to defend the letter as it originally stood, though. Finally nudged me into joining the BHA!

  • …………………although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity…………………..

    To believe that God has any part in healing is entirely based on your faith in a ‘Divinity’. There can be medicine, surgery, human compassion and ingenuity without the belief in any God.
    A religious belief can, and does, help some people facing illness and death. It can, and does, enable some people to cope with another’s illness and death. However, as the ASA ruling says, it cannot be shown to play any part in the ‘physical’ side of illness and death.

  • Well done Tim. Good article

  • I think we should than Tim Farron for coming on to the site to reply to the comments made – this is something we do not see often enough

  • Sadie Smith 28th Mar '12 - 7:29pm

    Helpful comment, Tim. Thanks.

  • Eden Munday 28th Mar '12 - 7:34pm

    “God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity”. Ummmm. I’m pretty sure these things don’t need God to work.

    But, anyway. “We can heal you” is not a subjective statement. If a church wishes to advertise a factual claim that relates to reality and not metaphysics, they must have evidence to back it up. The same standards are applied to any other organisation. The ASA is quite right; faith isn’t good enough when it comes to testable statements. Sorry.

    Free speech does not apply to false advertising. Free markets don’t work like that. Your letter offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a secular perspective.

  • Thanks for the explanation Tim.

  • Nice one Tim. I think you did the right thing by signing that letter. It was badly written, but nevertheless the overall thrust of the message is something very reasonable and liberal. I don’t see any problem in this at all.

  • Penny Burgess 28th Mar '12 - 7:47pm

    Thanks for clarifying Tim. I don’t agree with you either, but that’s what makes the world go round.

    My real concern was the company that was advertising and having us linked to it. Looking at their website in detail, it would appear that the ASA was absolutely correct to ban the advertisement. It demonstrates the very worst in religious extremes taking financial advantage of the unwary.

  • Ruth Bright 28th Mar '12 - 8:10pm

    It is very positive that Tim Farron has had the courtesy to engage with party members about this.

    George Potter’s direct quotation from the advert is helpful and salutary.

    We will look very odd as a party if we appear to be always moaning about fibs about face creams but relaxed about the pedalling of false hope about a cure for multiple sclerosis.

  • Still unnerved by Tim’s signing of the letter. But must say, I’m most impressed by his clarification and somewhat relieved it isn’t as nutty as I first thought. Well done Tim.

  • Tim says the ASA “aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit”. Where should the line be as to what is quack medicine and what is theology? Is it just popular religions that should be exempt? Or just those that don’t try to extract money from adherents or others (e.g. Scientology, no; but the Vatican, err…)? What precise ways of generating revenue from products/services/membership would be enough to make medical claims unacceptable?

    Or is it the nature of the thing that’s doing the healing that matters? “NEED HEALING? X CAN HEAL TODAY!” “God” is an acceptable X but a chemical sold for profit isn’t? How about a certain cave or stream? Or free crystals, or invisible crystals, or ‘spirits’, or membership of a particular organisation…

    Saying that advertisements can not make unproven and potentially misleading medical claims seems like a fairer and more manageable boundary of what’s acceptable.

    One other thought: if God is involved in healing through medicine etc., does it really matter what structure the NHS has? Surely God’s going to ensure just as many people are healed, no matter what the public/private ratio.

    But, like others, I’m yet again impressed by Tim’s level of engagement with party members.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Mar '12 - 8:48pm

    I don’t often agree with Graeme Cowie but on this occasion I do. Sorry, Tim, I respect and agree with much of what you say on other matters even though I am one of those whom, I understand, you have disparagingly described as “quitters” but ,on this issue, I must disagree with you. The ASA decision offends my (now small l) liberalism not one jot:: quite the reverse in fact.

  • Tracy Connell 28th Mar '12 - 8:48pm

    Thanks for this Tim.

    Must say I do have to disagree with you on some things. You say “God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity” No – Man heals through medicine, surgery, human compassion and ingenuity. It’s all down to science and man-made medicines. Yes you have your beliefs, and I respect that, but can’t see how a ‘God’ has anything to do with it. Yes, prayer may help you, but that is a psychological effect rather than physical intervention like medicine.

    I believe people should be able to express how they feel, but I would go with the ASA on being against claiming that ‘God can Heal people from medical conditions’. Firstly you would have to prove the existence of God (not make the ASA disprove it) – hypotheses must be proven not disproven. Secondly, the power for ‘God’ to heal must also be scientifically proven. Which it is not. And if someone did see this sort of advertisement and decided to seek this kind of help rather than medical intervention, then it could prove fatal if the illness could have been treated medically and wasn’t. So I see the ASA’s point of view. I don’t think it is a matter of preventing freedom of speech. I agree with George Potter 🙂

    On the plus side, you do say “the reference to the ASA providing indisputable evidence is silly, and the implication that people should seek faith healing at the expense of medical intervention is something that I just don’t believe in.” which I DO agree with. It is a relief that you have said this, and hopefully that is the end of the issue.

    Thanks again for the clarification 🙂

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Mar '12 - 9:32pm

    @ Richard Morris

    I tried , but failed, to leave a comment on your blog.

    It seems to me that the difference between the two adverts which you reproduced was that the BHA one was clearly a statement of opinion: “There’s probably no God. … ” while the Christian Party one purported to be a statement of fact:: “There definitely is a God. …”: a “fact” which, clearly, the advertisers could not substantiate.

    But I’m not surprised that the ASA ducked the issue of adjudicating between them.

    I think , however , that both adverts are different in kind from a n advert claiming that faith healing or, for example,, homeopathy is an effective remedy for any medical condition.

  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 10:04pm


    I appreciate you clarifying your position and I think you deserve kudos for saying you shouldn’t have signed such a poorly worded letter. I’m sure that in future you’ll not let Gary Streeter MP write letters for you.

    However, like others I still disagree with your position on the ASA overstepping their remit. I think consumers do need protection from unproven medical claims however, they are dressed up, be they religious, new-age or pharmaceutical. Simply arguing that such claims are subjective doesn’t cut it, not when 3 people are dead as a result of buying into them. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-14406818

    Still, at least you recognise the bad science in the letter you co-signed and that was the main source of my objection.

  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '12 - 10:14pm

    The ASA decision is wholly consistent with Liberalism. Part of the role of government is to protect vilunerable people. People suffering with the ailments quoted in the ad (quoted above by George Potter) are certainly vulnerable and suggestible. Faith and prayer and being prayed for can help people become less distressed and can in that sense have a beneficial effect, but they cannot cure those things. I tshould be easy for religious organizations to avoid excessive claims, and this one certainly did claim too much. I thank God for ASA!

  • I think a key point is being missed here. The vast majority of people have heard of God, know the story of Jesus, and would approach this advert with an existing belief or disbelief in God and the healing properties of prayer.
    On the subject of ads for beauty products and the like in magazines, it’s very hard to tell whether you are looking at someone who is naturally slim, or has seriously calorie restricted, or has been airbrushed, or has had plastic surgery. This creates a very compelling but unhealthy and unrealistic ideal for young people to aspire to.

  • The ASA is not infringing anyone’s rights to say something they think. The advert could have ben reworded to be clear that it is not making unsubstantiated and medically proven claims, it could still state their belief in the power of prayer. No-one is saying that they weren’t allowed to tell someone of their beliefs.

    To claim they were wrong to pull the advert making on specific medical claims, which are totally unsubstantiated is, in my opinion, silly. To claim they are wrong to pull it based on freedom of speech is, again in my opinion, simply misguided and a bit laughable. There is a world of difference between stating something you believe to be true, and stating something IS true, and whilst adverts cross this line many times, adverts relating to medical claims are held to more stringent measures for the benefit and well being of everyone involved. This ad clearly made specific claims that prayer can help cure certain issues, therefore needs to be assessed on that basis. If it said ‘we believe prayer can cure’ I’m sure it would have been deemed acceptable.

    Freedom of speech is one thing… misleading, intentionally or unintentionally, people over something as important as their health is quite another.

  • I still think that – unless I’ve completely misunderstood – the fact that the ASA has no authority to ban anything (only to refer cases to the courts) means that there isn’t the threat to free speech that some people are suggesting.

    Unless that threat is embodied in statute law, of course. In which case Tim Farron’s first priority should be getting it amended, not writing letters to the ASA.

  • Interesting series of comments.

    However, I take issue with Tracy Connell’s statement about something being “scientifically proved”. OK it is perhaps a shorthand but I was always taught – and taught – that a hypothesis cannot be “proved”, it can only be “disproved”. That is the basis of scientific methodology.

    Sadly this, therefore, makes it difficult to “adjudicate” in this debate…..

  • Tim seems a good guy, but he was definitely wrong to sign the letter and he is wrong to criticise the ASA ruling – the original advert was absurd and misleading – the ASA was right to strike it down.

  • Darren Reynolds 29th Mar '12 - 9:56am

    Congratulations on your apology to members, Tim. In going that far you set a good example. But I have areas of disagreement with your response that I would like you to re-consider.

    The Advertising Codes lay down the rules that advertisers, including the Christian group involved, must follow. Consumer protection and social responsibility are at the heart of the Codes, which require that advertising must not mislead, harm or offend.

    Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers, including religious groups if they are engaged in marketing, must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.

    That is the issue here. If, as you set out in (a), the ASA isn’t set up to handle theological matters, then the issue you need to address is that there’s nothing in their Code to say that theology is excluded. It is wrong to attack a specific case. Instead, try to change the rules. However, I suspect most people would think the ASA’s Code is fine as it is on this point. If someone makes a claim for a product or service in a marketing communication, the inclusion of something to do with God in the claim should not exclude it from the ASA’s remit.

    I also have an issue with your point at (c). As has been set out above, there is nothing subjective about the claim. (Well, let’s say, it is no more subjective than whether grass is usually green; everything is ultimately subjective but we’re dealing here with a legal issue, not a philosophical one.) The claim is quite simple, and, as the ASA’s CAP Code requires, there is no substantiation. I’ve often seen advertisers get around this by adding the word, “may”, or “thought”, as in, “Thought to reduce incidence of bowel cancer,” or “May reduce damage caused by oxidative stress”. The claim in dispute is not like that. It is bold and direct. In my view the ASA’s stance is correct.

  • “To be honest with you, the ASA decision offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a Christian perspective”


  • Mark Bailey 29th Mar '12 - 5:42pm

    Hi Tim
    Look at it from another way. You’re an intelligent guy, currently very unlikely to be feeling increasingly desperate because of a recently-diagnosed cancer eating away at you. However, think of it from the point of view of the person who is in that position…
    Doing anything, and I mean anything, that delays appropriate medical treatment, in the case of many cancers is bad. Many cancers are treatable, but a delay in appropriate treatment can result in a treatable cancer becoming far less treatable, more likely to kill you, or if you want to think about it from the NHS point of view – more expensive to treat! People have a right to opinions – but people and indeed organisations really don’t have a right to their own facts. And saying “God can cure cancer” (without providing appropriate evidence) can seriously mislead precisely those who are most in need of not being misled. Liberalism – really should have nothing to do with it.
    There is a joke: Q: What do you call alternative medicine which has been shown to work? A: Medicine!

  • Sarah Jennie 29th Mar '12 - 8:10pm

    @Mark, Tim isn’t suggesting that you delay treatment, in fact, he states in the article that he believes ‘ that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.’

    Still disagree with your views Tim, but they’re your views and you have the right to express them. Thanks for clarifying any misunderstanding with this srticle xx

  • Paul D Smith 2nd Apr '12 - 8:19am

    Is anyone else concerned that an MP can threaten a public body in this manner and then admit that he was wrong to sign the letter as written? What does this say about the governance of our country? I can only hope that Tim looks at legislation being voted through Parliament in somewhat more detail!

  • If there was some way to harness the energy of atheists taking themselves too seriously we could solve the world’s energy crisis.

  • Scott Berry 2nd Apr '12 - 4:22pm

    Thanks for coming on here to comment; the original letter was fairly difficult to defend (for the reasons you mention, as well as the somewhat childish “Once I prayed and my hand got better – how does the ASA explain that” line). That being said I’m genuinely uncertain what I think about the ASA’s decision here, and can certainly respect the opinion you’ve put across in this post, so thank you for clarifying that.

  • David Simpson 2nd Apr '12 - 11:03pm

    Am I the only one who noticed that the ad (Thanks for posting it to George Potter) said “CAN” not “WILL” Thus the said people in Bath have an instant get out as just because God “Can” do something does not mean he/she will.
    Which is why Tim was right in saying the ASA were getting into a theological debate.
    If you believe in God then you beieve that he can do anything and that will include healing anyone, of any disease, and even bringing them back from the dead.
    If you do not believe in god then you do not believe she can do any of that..

    So it becomes not a case of misleading advertisments but of deciding whether or not god exists. Which has nothing to do with the ASA.

  • I think the last post here is the last word on the substance of the actual case, and of cause, causality is everything. However, I think the final word has already been uttered by Tim himself: read before you sign!

  • In fact BA rescinded it’s ruling barring staff from wearing visible necklaces when challenged. However, the complainant continued to claim unfair discrimination on other grounds, and lost. Like many of the other claims of discrimination being made by Christians, her claims turned out to be false. People should be aware that behind many such cases there are groups whose interests are served by stirring up feelings of discrimination of marginalisation amongst Christians. What can appear to be a case of discrimination at first glance is often nothing of the sort. It is often more about Christians attempting to gain special privileges and exemptions. The same applies to the campaign against ASA.

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