Westminster: 2021 Elections Bill has been designed to prevent electoral fraud
Westminster: 2021 Elections Bill has been designed to prevent electoral fraud
A view from Rae Burdon

What 'lies' behind advertising law?

There is a lack of legislation that prohibits inaccuracy in electoral advertising.

"Rugby player drinks beer – shocker" Martin Johnson said of the news surrounding Mike Tindall's escapades at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Similar, one supposes, to the impact of "Politicians lie" a decade later. Besides, although politicians may lie and be known to lie, some will continue to be trusted. This is in part because exposure of the lie carries less impact and affects different people from the lie itself, and in part because of the perception of the individual concerned. Campaign readers, above all others, will understand some brands' ability to garner an unreasonable share of the benefit of the doubt.

As far as we are aware, however, until now there has been no legislation that permits political lies. There is a lack of legislation, or any other form of regulation, that prohibits inaccuracy in electoral advertising, but no law that allows it, or leaves a gap so wide you could drive a big red bus through it.

The 2021 Elections Bill, as currently drafted, breaks that duck. The law will gain attention largely because of its requirement for voter ID and other measures designed to prevent electoral fraud. The bill is also the vehicle for "a new digital imprints regime", a requirement to identify an election candidate in digital advertising in much the same way as is currently required in print material.

The new regime is described by the government as "one of the most comprehensive in the world today". That's quite a claim for a plan that's some 20 years late (the Electoral Commission first advocated digital imprints in 2003) and is about as comprehensive as Eton College.

There is, as General Melchett explained "one slight problim [sic]": the law will require the identification of a candidate and the candidate's "promoter". Don't ask why the latter is necessary; this is "Commons sense". It does not, however, require identification of the candidate's party. Rule number one in commercial advertising in self-regulation and under the law? The advertiser must be identifiable.

The absence of this condition allows candidates, whose political affiliation is often unknown to the voter, to run misleading claims about opposition policies under a different guise. Pretty unlikely, I hear you say. Already done multiple times, we reply. See, for example, Shaun Bailey's leaflet purporting to be from "City Hall" and neglecting to mention that he was the Conservative candidate for London mayor.

This wholly inadequate bill will probably become law – its second reading is on 7 September and all the attention will be elsewhere anyway. Advertising in this context doesn't really matter to politicians. (Except, of course, when it's the principal creator of the UK's obesity crisis.)

Well, it matters to voters, nine out of 10 of whom think "it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate" (YouGov 2019) and it should matter to the advertising industry, which is required to adhere to at least two self-regulatory codes and several consumer laws, making it four rules for claims about jammy dodgers and none for their parliamentary line extension.

Finally, a nod to the writer of the Saatchi ad featuring Tony Blair: "What lies behind the smile?" The ad was probably intended to arouse suspicions. These days, sadly, it would serve only to confirm views.

Rae Burdon is a member of Reform Political Advertising, a non-partisan coalition that is campaigning for greater transparency and accuracy in elections.

Image: Chris Hepburn Getty Images