It’s three years since the CAP code stopped regulating party political ads. The Electoral Commission is pondering whether to fill the void with a special political advertising code.
Topic: Political advertising
Who: The Electoral Commission
When: November 2003
The Electoral Commission published a consultation paper on political advertising.
Since 2000 party political advertising in the non-broadcast media has been exempt from the Committee of Advertising Practice code of advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing ("the CAP code"). The Electoral Commission's 2003 consultation paper invites comments to help the Commission in its current review of whether a new self-regulatory code should be introduced for political advertising in the non-broadcast media.
In 1998 the Committee on Standards in Pubic Life considered the regulation of political advertising and concluded that the best way forward was for the political parties to work in association with the advertising industry so as to produce an agreed voluntary code.
To date, no progress has been made on this.
The Commission's paper looks at how other countries have dealt with the regulation of political advertising. Its conclusion is that because of the importance attached to the protection of free political speech and of practical difficulties, most self-regulatory bodies explicitly exclude political advertising from the scope of their codes. There is therefore very little international precedent for sector-specific self regulation of political advertising.
As regards other controls over political advertising in the UK, the Commission makes it clear that its review does not take in the law of libel, which is still fully applicable to political advertising material as it is to any other published material in the UK. Separately Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it an offence to publish a false statement about a candidate's personal character or conduct. Also, section 76 of the 1983 Act provides that only the candidate, the election agent or the agent's appointees may spend on advertising for or against a particular candidate. Advertising expenditure is capped at an amount dependent on the number of registered voters and whether the constituency is urban or rural. Section 110 of the 1983 Act provides that every bill, placard or poster having reference to an election and every document for the purposes of promoting or procuring the election of a candidate must bear on its face the name and address of the printer and publisher. Other applicable laws include those relating to the incitement of racial hatred and regulations controlling the placement of advertisements, for example the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992.
As for other existing incentives to political parties to steer clear of advertising that misleads or offends, the paper cites the intense scrutiny of election campaigns by the media as well as the opportunity for consumers to deliver their own verdict on polling day. The Commission also queries the extent to which political parties and other campaign groups would be willing to agree to a political advertising code and to adhere to it in the heat of battle during a campaign period, with currently almost 300 registered political parties to whom any code on political advertising could apply. There is also concern as to whether adjudications on alleged breaches of the code might be completed before election day, considering the relatively short campaigning period for a general election, for example.
On the plus side, signing up to a code might result in voters developing more respect for parties, whilst another supposed argument in favour of the special code is that it would "protect advertising agencies from clients who might otherwise press for misleading or offending themes to be used in advertising campaigns."
At the end of the paper the Commission includes a helpful table of points for and against, but the overall tone of the paper as well as the fact that the Commission manages to muster 15 points against having a special code and only 12 points in favour, all point in the direction of the idea of a special code being rejected and the situation staying exactly as it is.
Comments on the consultation paper are requested by 9 January 2004.
Why this matters:
It is important that a clear decision one way or the other is taken as to whether political advertising should be subject to its own sector-specific code. The Commission itself remarks, however, that during the last general election campaign in 2001 there was in fact very little controversy surrounding campaigns other than limited criticism of the two main parties using personalised and pejorative advertisements focusing on the party leaders' attributes. It goes on to comment, however, that because political advertising is by nature controversial, we should be alive to the possibility that political advertising might be misleading or offensive.
All the indications are therefore that the Commission will come down in favour of the status quo, but we will have to wait until the spring of 2004 for the final answer.