European Court could lift ban on political ads

The Electoral Commission is to consider whether Britain should

replace party political broadcasts with American-style advertising paid

for by the parties.



The Commission, which supervises elections, is investigating the future

of PPBs and its review goes much wider than was expected. Although

politicians will have reservations about parties buying airtime, the

existing system has been thrown into doubt by a ruling in Switzerland

which suggests that the ban on political ads may be illegal under the

European Court of Human Rights.



In a consultation document, the Commission says Britain should consider

whether it is "desirable or necessary" to keep the ban on broadcast ads

by political groups even if the ECHR ruling does not lift it.



The report suggests that party commercials might "invigorate" election

campaigns and revive voter interest but admits that turnout is lower in

the US. It concedes that US political commercials are perceived by

critics as being "spin and soundbite over substance and all too often

negative".



The four main options outlined by the Commission are keeping "free"

PPBs; replacing them with paid political advertising; a mixed system of

free and paid-for ads and scrapping PPBs altogether.



Other ideas include limiting paid-for ads to radio; imposing a limit on

ad spending by the parties and forcing broadcasters to offer ads to

parties at lower rates, as in Germany and America.



Limited changes include retaining free PPBs but making them shorter than

the current minimum of two minutes 40 seconds, which the Commission says

is "considered too long by many". There could also be more regular

broadcasts between elections.



Another proposal is to extend the obligation to show PPBs to satellite

and cable channels, perhaps through a formula based on audience

share.



Otherwise, PPBs will reach fewer people as the broadcast industry

continues to fragment.



The Commission is inviting comments on its report by 15 February and

will make its final recommendations this summer.



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