Last week we passed another milestone towards modernising the rules for political advertising. A cross-party group of MPs called for a fairly comprehensive list of measures to update the rules relating to electoral and political advertising.
Only a very few groups have in recent years been advocating changing the rules governing our elections and political advertising, so it is great to see some of the measures we and others have been lobbying for included. We welcome, for example, the recommendation to have an independent database of ads to increase the transparency of political ads managed by the Electoral Commission, a key point we’ve been advocating. The cross-party group also make many sensible points which are outside the scope of our focus on political advertising, and these too would go some way towards making our elections fairer and more transparent.
It is, of course, essential for us to have MPs actively championing change in the House of Commons. We are a politically neutral organisation and have been seeking the support of MPs and organisations from across the political spectrum. The reality, however, is that meaningful reform doesn’t appear to be a priority for the current government. Our view is that the measures in the Queen’s Speech relating to reforming the rules around political advertising and elections, while welcome, are the bare minimum a government could have included if the topic was to appear on its agenda at all. Imprints on digital ads are in there, which is something we and all the other organisations have been advocating (including the Electoral Commission since the early 2000s). There is also a sentence about preventing foreign interference in elections, but it is so general that it isn’t clear what, if anything, this will lead to.
After all the disinformation rife in the 2019 UK general election it certainly seems time for MPs from all parties to reflect on whether they really want to participate in an arms race of disinformation techniques, and for a mindset of “win at all costs” to become the norm.
The report states it has a focus on three areas transparency, monitoring and deterrence. It is perhaps these areas of focus that have unfortunately led on the topic of disinformation to an essential, and we would say the key, reform being missed off an otherwise comprehensive agenda for change.
The overlooked elephant in the room is political ad content.
To qualify this statement, a reminder that the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising was set up by advertising practitioners with experience of running and measuring the impact of numerous ad campaigns for some of the UK’s best known brands.
Despite what a large part of the media narrative on the problematical issues of political advertising campaigns would have you believe, one of the biggest impacts of an ad campaign usually comes from the actual message in an ad, or of the campaign. When you think about, this is surely just common sense.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) provides a world-leading service in regulating what the advertising industry calls ‘content’, essentially the message. This includes everything about the ad itself, including what you can and can’t say in it. Astonishingly, political advertising is the one area the ASA does not have in its scope.
To simplify, here is how ad content regulation currently works: advertisers have a self-regulatory code they have agreed to abide by. If members of the public have an issue with an ad they can complain to the ASA, which is there as a backstop. Some two-thirds of the many complaints it receives relate to misleading claims made by advertisers.
The ASA decides whether it considers the ad to have breached the code. If advertisers are found to have transgressed, the ASA has various sanctions it can impose. The code advertisers have to abide by is extensive, as you can see for yourself here.
A key reform we have been advocating is introduction of a similar process for political ads in order, as the ad industry might say, to ensure substantiation of factual claims or, as the public might say, to stop the lying.
The public want this. YouGov research we commissioned over the election period showed that 87% of the UK public agreed ‘that it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts should be accurate’. The result was almost identical for members of the public whichever of the main parties they voted for and, incidentally, whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the Brexit referendum. You can view the raw data here.
The suggestions made by the cross-party group include a proposal to fact-check claims put out by the various parties. If this were implemented it would be a welcome development, but … think back to the election and the major misleading claims and lies called out by the media and independent fact-checking services like BBC Reality Check, Channel 4 Fact Check, and Full Fact. The same, discredited, claims continued to be made throughout the election period.
You can view our considerable fact base of misleading ads over the UK election in our review of the election period, Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful: how political advertising in the 2019 election let us down. The objective of our project was to gather evidence, across all the parties, of misleading claims in political ads. We used a team of volunteers to do this and, where we could, checked the claims using the above third-party fact checking services. To the best of our knowledge, none of the ads whose claims were shown to be false were withdrawn.
A key way advertising works is subconscious. Fact checking is an essential tool for fighting disinformation in a modern election, but it reaches only a relatively small proportion of the electorate, compared to the reach and frequency of a political ad campaign. And that is before taking into account the polarising effect once disinformation enters the echo chambers of social media.
What is being proposed by the cross-party group would not stop misleading ads continuing to be run, or parties blithely ignoring fact checks. Accordingly, it fails to address the key issue raised by the conduct of the last election.
This claim is fact checked by Full Fact here https://fullfact.org/health/six-hospitals-not-forty.
This is the Conservative video of Kier Starmer in which his replies to questions on Brexit were edited out.
This Labour Facebook ad features a photoshopped bus and carries claims that the Conservatives have been in talks with the U.S. about ‘selling off’ the NHS. The £500m claim is fact checked here by Full Fact and none of the election fact checks we’ve seen corroborate the main claim.
This Liberal Democrat letter is signed by Mike Smithson, a ‘Polling and Elections Expert’. The letter sets out the potential impact of tactical voting, claiming that nearly 200 seats across the UK could be decided by Labour supporters voting tactically. However, the small ‘imprint’ required by the Electoral Commission shows that the letter is from the LDs. Mike Smithson is also a former Liberal Democrat politician.
This Liberal Democrats leaflet showed a series of quotes purporting to be from Sky News / The Guardian. The juxtaposition of the quotes and the titles intended to convey that the views expressed were those of the media concerned when they are in reality quotes from Jo Swinson.
You can see many more examples in our election review.
One of the reasons we ran the election project, apart from seeking to provide a significant body of evidence for why rules are needed for political ad content, was to counter arguments which claim political ad content ‘can’t be regulated’. Our experience of running ad campaigns, for example financial services ad campaigns which are considerably more tightly regulated than anything we are proposing, tells us that, as well as being desirable, it is entirely achievable. Hopefully our election review not only goes some way towards documenting the problem, but also proposes an entirely feasible solution.
Our solution is simple, and we are not attempting to reinvent the wheel. We merely suggest that some of the rules and processes which work for consumer ads should apply to political ads. In other words, political parties need to agree a self-regulatory code, and the remit of the ASA needs to be extended to ensure it is honoured.
Literally the only barrier to achieving this is political leadership. So we hope the cross-party group will reconsider this essential and key omission and support it too. We are continuing our campaigning efforts to promote this area, and would certainly welcome their support.
Alex Tait is the Co-Founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising
You can follow the Coalition on Twitter @clearpolitic5