Background

When we started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May 2018 there was no plan for political ad reform.

Historically, the stumbling block to updating the laws around political advertising has been a refusal by the main political parties to entertain the idea of change. Because of the lack of political will, UK regulators have been slow to push for or initiate reforms.

Now, at last, there is a significant appetite for regulation. The Disinformation & “Fake News” Inquiry from the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its recommendations in February and called for implementation of 2 of the points in our 4-point plan. It also has a recommendation calling for a “comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations” surrounding political advertising.

Damian Collins MP also called in September 2018 for a political ad code to be implemented that covers all 4 of our points.

Adding its voice to those from Westminster, the UK’s trade body for advertisers, ISBA, has put out a position statement supporting the regulation of political advertising and our plan. Its Director General, Phil Smith, says, “ISBA supports the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising’s 4-point plan and agrees there is urgency for there to be agreement in how political advertising should be more closely regulated ahead of any potential upcoming electoral processes.”

The trade body representing ad agencies, the IPA, has responded to the report by supporting the call for a public and searchable repository of political advertising, with imprints to show who is sponsoring an ad.

This is all good progress in accordance with our plan, although we are disappointed the DCMS report didn’t clearly recommend rules covering the content of political ads, and specifically ‘objective factual claims’.

There is a danger that what has been achieved so far may simply be ignored by the Government. It has 3 months from the publication of the DCMS report to respond to its recommendations.

As has happened with various inquiries previously it can choose to ignore recommendations presented to it.  We must ensure that the two recommendations in the DCMS report (imprints / watermarks and the ad repository) get a positive response from the Government. We will also look to influence formal recognition for the substantiation of objective factual claims.

Now there is recognition of the urgent need for change on the part of citizens, the ad industry, businesses and not for profits we need to demand change.

Here is our plan. Our solution is a simple, uncontroversial, non-partisan 4-point plan that Parliament could easily implement. So:

1/  Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public

The DCMS report’s recommendation for this should be implemented in full.  “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. The repository should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.”

Facebook and Google have already made changes of their own accord, which is to be commended, but we need industry-wide standards rather than platform-specific solutions.

2/  Create a body to regulate political advertising

We need a body to oversee the content of political advertising; there is no regulation of this in the UK and that is a principal cause of many of the recent problems.

Parliament could expand the remit of the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority or the Election Committee of Ofcom – or found an alternative body.

3/  Require all ‘objective factual claims’ used in political adverts to be substantiated

If a campaign wants to make a seemingly objective and quantifiable claim in its political advertising, it should be accurate and stand up to independent scrutiny.

We’re not calling for an end to optimistic promises or scaremongering about what the other side might do: we’re simply saying that if you want to position something as a fact the public have a right to be confident that it is just that.

Below are two examples of supposedly ‘factual’ claims made in the EU referendum – one by each of the official campaigns – which were rubbished by independent fact-checkers within hours of the advertising going live, and yet the messages ran throughout the campaign.