As the Disinformation & “Fake News” inquiry demonstrated yesterday political adverting reform is just common sense. Not only for the electorate but also the political parties.

Yesterday was an important day that re-emphasised the urgent need for the Government, in its final report due early next year, to accept many of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Disinformation and “Fake News” Inquiry’s recommendations.

As a non-partisan coalition of the ad industry we responded to Damian Collins’ call  in the trade press a few months ago for a code of political advertising. The points we’ve been advocating since our launch in May are now included in the proposed code. When we launched there was, as far as we know, no plan for reform, so it has been gratifying to hear the points in our original four-point plan finding support among the regulators present at the DCMS committee yesterday: Elizabeth Denham from the Information Commissioner’s Office, Claire Bassett from the Electoral Commission and Guy Parker from the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ICO’s announcement yesterday that it is calling for code of practice covering the use of data in campaigns and elections compliments that element in our wider political advertising code also.

To take each point in our plan in turn:

1. Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so

Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA, opened his session by stating, “Everyone thinks that political advertising should be regulated, by the way … the difficulty is how and by whom?” Well we’ve outlined the core of the “how” in our code, and the “by whom” is for the Government to decide between the ASA, the Electoral Commission, or a new body.

2. Imprints – all advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and whom it is promoting.

The Electoral Commission have put out a statement that “All non-printed election and referendum material should contain an ‘imprint’ so voters can see who is targeting them.”

3. Messaging transparency – a searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Claire Bassett agreed with this recommendation (also advocated by the DCMS’s interim report) so that people “can go and look at these libraries and see what messages are being put forward and what messages are being targeted at me”.

As we’ve said previously, the only way this will be effective is if there is a simple way for the citizen, researcher or journalist to access the information via an independently run database of all political ads for a particular campaign period. Solutions developed by individual media owners or platforms demonstrate good intentions and could feed into the solution, but can’t on their own solve the problem. This is because of the sheer numerousness of websites and platforms by which political ads can be delivered to the UK public.

4. Factual claims – a regulator should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made. We believe these should be pre-cleared, as is currently the case with TV ads via Clearcast.

Guy Parker dispelled any myths that might exist about the impossibility of regulating factual claims. He stated that “75% of the work that they do [at the ASA] is to prevent ads being misleading” which certainly underlines its importance as part of any reform.

He stated that a line would need to be drawn between what is “legal and permissible political opinion, and straightforward misrepresentations of fact,” adding that the latter is rare. However, he also stated that “None of these [problems] are insoluble and [the ASA] have a lot of expertise to help.” “If political parties are serious about writing a code, we could help them draw up fast track procedures” so that there could be rapid rulings within an election period. Also that “They could help [the parties] put in place processes that would help them decide between straightforward misrepresentations and political opinion.”

Okay, so what is the barrier? It is simply that we need the political parties to agree to a code.

When trust in political campaigning and our democratic processes is at such an all-time low, we argue that some bold interventions are needed to restore that trust. Surely this is as clear as the light of day?  Google have a saying they have used at sales meetings, to the effect that the pace of technological change will never move as slowly again as it did yesterday. By that they mean that organisations need to embrace change and move faster than their environment is changing. We need the same with regulation.  We need these interventions to safeguard our democracy against the inevitable march of some of the negative aspects of technological change on our democracy, which is the root cause of the case for reform.

We also need leadership from the main parties and for them to rise above misperceptions of what might be against their partisan interests. Just as businesses have to accept restrictions in how they operate, so those campaigning in elections can’t just aim to win at any cost. Indeed I’d argue that the parties need to scrutinise the potential impact of each of the points we’ve been making and ask themselves whether those are really going to undermine their campaigning if everyone else is playing by the same rules,

Is there really any valid argument against imprints? I have yet to come across one.

Is there any honest argument against a regulator for political advertising – the CEO of the ASA says everyone accepts that needs to happen.

What about an independent database of political ads bringing transparency to all the ads being used in a campaign?

And how about the regulation of factual claims, given that Guy Parker says there are in any case unlikely to be many during a campaign period that would need to be treated as straightforward misrepresentation of fact? Obviously where they do occur despite being low in frequency they can have a significant impact though.

For the handful of claims that historically would have fallen into that category, what are the political parties going to say to the electorate? That they intend to win by straightforward misrepresentation of fact? If you asked the leaders of each of the parties – call me naïve – I can’t imagine they would oppose banning misrepresentation if everyone else was playing by the same rules. I’d argue as a “beta” signal of intent ahead of any such wider cross party agreement individual parties signing up to a campaign pledge to abide by the proposed code at the start of an election period would likely gain an advantage. Certainly in how their party is perceived.

You could argue cost considerations against the last two points but how much is it actually going to cost? Even with the additional security measures that would likely be required, my experience of running websites and databases suggests such costs wouldn’t be prohibitive. Additional resources to enable fast track complaint investigations by a regulator such as the ASA also surely isn’t going to cost that much in the big scheme of things.

The ASA as it has pointed out needs a funding review in any case to be able to tackle the changing nature of what they now have to manage including the increase in the volume of complaints against digital advertising and content on websites. An appropriate mechanism could surely be found to fund political advertising costs, for example from one of the platform levies being tabled. And if the government had the appetite for it is there really not a case for central Government funding? It would be a drop in the ocean, and safeguarding our democratic processes should surely be a high priority.

We’ve never said that it would necessarily need to be the ASA that provides the regulatory backstop for political advertising. However, given what was said yesterday at the DCMS committee I’d like to challenge them to use their expertise and experience to demonstrate to the political parties what factual claim regulation would actually look like. I imagine this wouldn’t be an onerous task and could draw heavily on existing consumer ad regulation, like the CAP or BCAP codes that govern non-broadcast and broadcast advertising.

Guy Parker presented an articulate and thought-through response to the questions put to him yesterday. The ASA’s 5-year strategy presented last week also offers a compelling vision  of purpose, ambition and strategy for the future of ad regulation. Its stated purpose is “to make advertisements responsible”, and its ambition is to make “every UK ad a responsible ad.” Providing a specific scheme for bringing political advertising into line with those aims would, I believe, address a very important gap. One that has a negative halo effect on the rest of advertising too.

Claire Bassett mentioned yesterday that the Electoral Commission had asked for imprints for online ads in 2003! The overarching need is for the Government and political parties to acknowledge the urgency of the situation and to drive this reform forward. Also to recognise that there should be no electoral risk in agreeing to reforms which are just plain common sense.

Alex Tait is the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

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