Lord Puttnam, January 2024
“When, as Chairman of a cross-party House of Lords Committee in 2020 I was responsible for recommending the regulation of ‘fundamental inaccuracy’ in political advertising, I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to be nodded through, but neither did I think the government response would be quite so disingenuous.
The proposal was rejected largely on two grounds: that it would constitute a ‘chilling effect on freedom of speech’ and that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to manage successfully.
Let’s deal briefly with the first, a pretty flimsy barricade to hide behind when in reality speech is regulated in law and the recommendation very consciously excluded political opinion from scope – we were writing as politicians, for goodness sake.
After much evidence of some wild inaccuracies/ ‘free speech’ from all political parties in their advertising, we felt it was right that factual claims should be subject to the same kind of misleadingness rules that all other advertisers must observe.
Two recent developments make this situation increasingly worrying: the arrival of AI, whose principal architects have acknowledged its main threat to be to political disinformation, and the increase in advertising spend allowance. That means more dodgy bar charts, more accusations that Rishi Sunak wishes to set free all sex offenders (we exaggerate, but then so did they) and claims of the building, no doubt, of many more hospitals.
When I resigned from the House of Lords, I took on a single new assignment: that of the chairmanship of Reform Political Advertising’s Review Panel, because I felt so strongly about this issue. In reviews of local election material in 2022, we proved that it was possible to manage a process that could make rapid decisions on the accuracy or otherwise of political ads. The report can be read here.
So, we know that voters want this to happen (YouGov research in 2019 found that 9/10 voters thought that factual claims in political advertising should be accurate); we have proved that it’s workable and now, just to ensure that all the doors to objection are closed, we have drafted a brief advertising code which simply requires that politicians are factually accurate and can substantiate claims in their advertising. It’s below.
It’s much wanted by voters, it would substantially improve political communication and it’s not hard to do – is it really too much to ask?”
In the absence of any regulation of factual content, we have launched a draft advertising code for discussion with interested parties in the run-up to the general election. You can hear our interview on the issue with James O’Brien here. We are approaching parties over the coming months and asking them to sign up to this simple ad code. The Green Party have already done so. Please email your MP – it will only take one minute – and ask them to get their party to sign.
RPA DRAFT ADVERTISING CODE
Electoral advertising: our commitment
In our advertising we will:
- Make every reasonable effort not to mislead voters;
- Ensure that factual claims are accurate according to recognised sources;
- Hold relevant and reliable evidence for factual claims, which will either be sourced in the advertising or made available if requested;
- Acknowledge it if we make a mistake and issue a public correction as quickly as possible;
- Inform audiences when we use generative AI.
The following is guidance for sourcing:
- Recognised published sources are the ONS, UKSA, HoC library, Police UK for crime stats, government departments, OECD, IMF, IFS. ‘OF’ regulators for energy/ water stats; other sources that most reasonable people would regard as an independent authority on the related issue;
- When quoting statistics, relevant sources and the applicable periods should be referenced; see UKSA Code of practice;
- When showing poll data, the polling dates, sample size and name of polling company should be shown; ideally a web address and/or other source where data tables may be viewed. See MRS/Impress guidance;
- When labelling election material with the required identifiers per Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Elections Act 2022, these should be sufficiently clear and prominent to the average reader. See ASA advice Use of Qualifications;
- The political party should be identified within the above as well as the promoter and candidate, unless it is already clear from the context;
- When incorporating related election results, the election (s) should be clearly identified and results accurately reported or this information to be made available via link;
- When inviting consumers to participate in research, privacy legislation and the MRS Code of Conduct should be observed;
- Material that includes the use of generative AI will carry a message informing audiences accordingly. It might also be stated that such material remains subject to the normal review processes.