Should you be responsible for just about any product’s advertising in the UK, you (well, most of you) will be aware that its advertising must observe at least two self-regulatory codes and, in many cases, three separate laws.
Electoral advertising, on the other hand, has no regulation whatsoever governing “misrepresentation” or misleading claims.
Put another and less delicate way, there is no official or unofficial prevention of political party lies in online, offline, paid, unpaid, owned and earned advertising, unless it’s about the “character and conduct” of a candidate, which is subject to a law that is rather less gainfully employed than is the ASA.
When the House of Lords made its recommendation to “restrict fundamentally inaccurate advertising” and pressed the government on the matter, the response cited was “freedom of speech”.
As Tommy Sheppard, SNP spokesperson on the Cabinet Office, put it, that liberty, as we have demonstrated in two separate reviews of electoral advertising, turns out to be the “freedom to lie”.
Sheppard, Debbie Abrahams, co-chair of Compassion in Politics, Liz Saville Roberts, the Plaid Cymru lead in the House of Commons (who has tabled an “end lying in politics” motion) and about a dozen MPs took part in a webinar organised by Compassion in Politics and Reform Political Advertising earlier this month.
The meeting’s key feature was a presentation from Hilary Souter, chief executive of the New Zealand ASA, which regulates electoral advertising and where no such “freedom to lie” exists.
Electoral advertising has been regulated successfully for “material claims” in New Zealand since 1993.
The UK government, in its response to the House of Lords recommendation, made the case that a regulator would fail because of the “vexatious” complaints that a regulatory system would incur.
However, the ASA New Zealand has proved that independent regulation of electoral advertising can deal with “vexatious” claims – as can any regulator worth its salt.
(The UK ASA, which is clearly worth its salt, has declared itself “ready to help”, but only when political parties themselves agree to be regulated.)
So, another excuse bites the dust. Meanwhile, the government maintains a “freedom of speech” defence when that is not under attack and, as Sheppard points out, we know what it really means.
So, the next time you again amend some confectionery brand content so that the ASA is happy, consider whether your elected representative might be developing a claim – any claim – to run on the side of a big red bus.
Rae Burdon is a member of Reform Political Advertising, a non-partisan coalition that is campaigning for greater transparency and accuracy in elections.
Picture: Jack Taylor/Stringer/Getty Images
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