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
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
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.