We should drop the ban on political advertising on TV

european court of human rightsThis week saw the failure of the attempt by Animal Defenders International to overturn the the UK’s ban political advertising on radio and television. The Guardian reports:

By a narrow majority decision, judges at the European court of human rights in Strasbourg have ruled that preventing the broadcast of a commercial – showing a girl in chains in a chimpanzee’s cage – did not violate freedom of expression. …

The animal rights group lost its appeals in both the high court and the House of Lords before taking the case to the ECHR in Strasbourg. In a majority decision, the court found that “both parties maintained that they were protecting the democratic process [and] that the reviews of the ban by both parliamentary and judicial bodies had been exacting and pertinent”. The judges pointed out that “the ban only applied to advertising and the applicant NGO had access to alternative media, both broadcast and non-broadcast”.

They added that “the lack of European consensus on how to regulate paid political advertising in broadcasting meant that the UK government had more room for manoeuvre when deciding on such matters as restricting public interest debate. Overall, the court found that the reasons given to justify the ban were convincing and that the ban did not therefore go too far in restricting the right to participate in public debate.”

I’ve no particular problem with the Court’s decision: it seems reasonable for the decision on whether to ban such advertising to be made democratically by politicians. However, I do believe the ban should be dropped — but only if we can be assured of simultaneous reforms to party funding.

Here’s how I summarised my view in four sentences when debating this very issue last summer:

I believe in free expression and can see absolutely no justification for continuing to ban political advertising on television.

I also believe in level playing fields in the market-place, though, and so any lifting on the ban would have to go hand-in-hand with a cap on the amount political parties/groups can spend pushing their point of view.

As I’ve argued before, the existing cap on spending is already too high, creating very real barriers for entry for new parties.

Lifting the ban while leaving party funding unreformed will simply allow those parties/groups with the deepest pockets to entrench further their market dominance.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • “I also believe in level playing fields in the market-place, though, and so any lifting on the ban would have to go hand-in-hand with a cap on the amount political parties/groups can spend pushing their point of view.”

    Isn’t it “groups” that are the problem here? Suppose huge sums of money were poured into a body campaigning for a referendum on EU membership. If that body advertised effectively, it could be to the advantage of UKIP candidates, and probably also Tory candidates. So what sort of cap should be placed on such advertising, and what relation should it have to the caps on direct spending by UKIP and the Tories?

  • Andrew Emmerson 24th Apr '13 - 9:38am

    I have to say – probably completely inconsistently with my views – I’m glad the ban has been retained, and I probably wouldn’t want it to be lifted. I hate when PPBs are on TV – and I can think of nothing worse than having to sit and watch the shit American attack style ads playing right throughout a general election campaign.

    However, Stephen does make a valid point, that if the cap on donation and spending were to be levelled out – then we may not be as bombarded. If both were combined, I could actually see it working

    Of course the reason it hasn’t changed, is it probably suits all the parties to not get it changed, if the ban is lifted, it creates an unaffordable arms races for all of them. I don’t expect much will really change as a result.

  • Yes, we all certainly want our politics to end up like America’s. It’s so great over there, with their 50% turnout, billions of special interest advertising money funnelled through obscure “campaign” groups. We don’t have enough negative campaigning over here yet, and I for one want to see much, much more.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Apr '13 - 9:55am

    I am not so keen on the idea of unleashing indiscriminate political advertising for two reasons. The quality of the political debate in the US has not been enhanced by their tv ads which have, arguably, lost people elections. I’m thinking of the Swift Boat Veterans vs John Kerry.

    You either have the option of allowing people to smear and lie about people in the name of freedom, or regulating what they can say, which is equally distasteful in some ways. Who would be the arbiter of whether something is truthful or acceptable. Not a place we necessarily want to go.

    We certainly wouldn’t want to go down the road of allowing the current Advertising Standards Authority to overse it. They are pretty toothless, particularly on the advertising of artificial baby milk. There are particular laws around such advertising. While companies are frequently found to be flouting them, there is little that the ASA can or will do about it.

  • Elizabeth Grant 24th Apr '13 - 10:00am

    There is a danger that we could go the way of the USA with political advertising. So it is vital that a combination of a reasonable cap, funding reform and a rigorous application of existing advertising guidelines/standards are vital. The main problem will be those organisations or corporations who could fund adverts which address an issue that is overtly political or which they have a vested interest. In the US ‘opinions’ which are personal attacks pepper political advertising and this would be bad for British politics.

  • I’m concerned that the term ‘freedom of expression’ may be overused as to become devalued – freedom doesn’t legitimise abuse, so there should be a stong legal framework to protect freedoms while preventing abuses. And not everyone behaves with the same level of morality as Stephen.

    Because media operates in the sensitive area of opinion, rules on media regulation demand exceptional scrutiny.

    Yet neither political parties nor regulators have sufficient resources to spare and the public will doesn’t exist to provide them from taxes.

    So Stephen’s ideas to equalise the cap with donations may be very interesting, but unless further measures can be suggested to guarantee compliance which retain public confidence then the result is only likely to create a less free and less fair election system, undermining our democracy even further.

    Beyond the technical side of making a regulatory system work, I’m concerned about the distancing effect of visual media, and I can’t see how advertising will help stimulate higher levels of engagement with public affairs.

    Political adverts just provide another reason to switch off!

  • There’s one very good reason for the ban to remain, which is that no retraction or fine can ever undo the planting of false claims, lies and libels in people’s minds. A spending cap would be irrelevant in those circumstances.

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