85% of the UK public agree that it is important “…that political parties’ adverts do not make false or misleading claims” (YouGov)

To inform our submission to the Government’s consultation on imprints for political ads (i.e. showing who is responsible for their production and publication) the Coalition For Reform in Political Advertising has run research with YouGov that found:

  • 85% of the UK public agreed that it was important “…that political parties’ adverts do not make false or misleading claims”
  • Similar results across the sample for those that voted Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat in the 2019 election and Remain and Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. The result for each of these groups were:
    • Conservative 89%
    • Labour 88%
    • Liberal Democrats 97%
    • Remain 92%
    • Leave 87%
  • A study we commissioned in December 2019, found that 87% of voters thought that ‘it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate.’ We conducted a very similar study in December 2018, when the level was 83%. Both pieces of research were also from YouGov. 

You can download the raw data from our latest YouGov research below. 

Our research also found that voters consider the regulation of the content of electoral material to be more important than identification of it source. 81% thought it was important that “…it is clear which political party is responsible for an advert?’”

We believe that the regulatory focus on imprints whilst necessary is insufficient. We are concerned that Cabinet Office / government is using the introduction of digital imprints as a means to continue to avoid the pressing need for many reforms that have been identified, including the regulation of material (quantifiable) claims in electoral advertising. The latter is a key issue we’ve been campaigning on for several years. 

About the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising 

We are a politically neutral, not for profit organisation run by unpaid volunteers set up by practitioners in the advertising industry. 

Read our review of the 2019 election  Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful, How Political Advertising In The 2019 General Election Let Us Down that was covered extensively by the BBC in the last week of the election. 

Please contact alex(dot)tait(at)reformpoliticaladvertising(dot)org  if you’d like to cover or discuss the research. 

Our reaction to the Government’s response to the House of Lords report Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising replies to the Government Response to the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee Report on Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust

1. Context and background

In June 2020, the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, after more than 18 months of Covid-affected work, evidence from more than 200 sources and leadership from one of the UK’s (and the world’s) most significant media figures Lord Puttnam, published ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust’

A primary recommendation from the Report (para 36) stated: ‘The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum. This regulatory committee should adjudicate breaches of this code.’

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising (CRIPA), authors of this note, provided evidence to the House of Lords Committee and strongly supported the recommendation outlined above.

2. The Government Response and CRIPA’s reaction

The Government’s Response to the Report has recently been published. This note addresses in particular the Government response to the recommendation set out above. Piecemeal below is the government’s verbatim (and in full) position on the recommendation; the italicised type re-states the government view, the regular type the Coalition’s response.

Democracy must work for the people and robust debate is fundamental, so reaching out to all of our citizens, and empowering them to engage, only makes our democracy stronger. As part of that, it is important that political parties and other campaigners are able to connect with voters. Having an active online presence is crucial to facilitating engagement with new audiences. However, we also recognise that there are legitimate concerns around the exploitation of online platforms, which is being addressed through our work to counter disinformation and online manipulation.

This government statement above is irrelevant to the House of Lords recommendation, as it fails entirely to address the issue highlighted in the report, which is actually and obviously to do with political advertising, not ‘an online presence.’ This distinction seemed clear enough in the recommendation itself, which refers to ‘advertising’ three times. The government reference above to ‘our work to counter disinformation and online manipulation’, while not explained, we take to mean the Online Harms White paper, already at least four years late and also devoid of any reference to political advertising. Additionally, in the context of the considerable endeavour from the House of Lords team and all those who provided evidence, the Government statement above seems platitudinous, trite and patronising in the extreme.

2.1. An answer to a different question

Transparency around who is promoting material online and how this is targeted is a key part of facilitating scrutiny of political messages and equipping people with the right tools to participate and make informed decisions. The government is committed to promoting transparency around political advertising and is bringing in new rules that will require election material promoted online by a party, candidate or campaigner to explicitly show who is behind it.

Whilst more relevant, this government response again fails to address the key issue, i.e. the inaccuracy of electoral advertising, not identification of its source, nor inaccuracy of such identification. It is entirely clear to the Coalition and no doubt most others that the Cabinet Office consultation ‘Transparency in digital campaigning’, to which the government response above presumably refers, appears to be, ironically, itself a smokescreen that fails to address voter concerns about the content rather than the source of electoral political advertising.

2.2. Another answer to a different question

However, policy or political arguments – both online and offline – which can be rebutted by rival campaigners as part of the normal course of political debate are not regulated and the government does not support such regulation.

The government is not being asked to support ‘such regulation’ when that is supposedly to do with ‘policy or political arguments both online and offline.’ The recommendation does not propose that such arguments are regulated. Indeed, we can be reasonably certain that the authors of the House of Lords report, politicians themselves, would be alarmed by the idea that political debate of the type outlined in the government response should be regulated. The recommendation relates to political advertising, not political debate, though of course we understand that the Government is being deliberately obtuse in its failure to distinguish between the two.

2.3. The abdication of responsibility

It is a matter for voters to decide whether they consider materials to be ‘accurate’ or not.

It is? So the government recommends that political parties should abdicate responsibility for accuracy in electoral political advertising statements? Does the government hold the same view, for example, for the government’s Coronavirus advertising? And voters should be able to know, for example, when an opinion poll published by a political party is pure invention? When a claim that departure from the EU would mean £350 million p.w. to the NHS? The idea that the voter should decide whether the government or political party statistics in advertising are accurate is either grossly irresponsible or ridiculous. There is no refuge between those positions.

2.4. A vested interest masquerading as a moral principle

It would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech to have political campaigning ‘pre-vetted’ or censored during an election or referendum campaign.

Again, the government description of ’pre-vetting’ or ‘censoring’ political campaigning does not reflect the House of Lords recommendation; nobody has made such proposals, albeit we understand that it is convenient for the government to suggest that they have. We suspect that the above government response might be more truthfully articulated as ‘a chilling effect on political parties’ ability to lie to the electorate in their advertising’.

The whole process would no doubt be subject to vexatious and politically motivated complaints; such contention is why political advertising has not been subject to codes of advertising practice since 1999.

The statement above does not bear much scrutiny, though it is again revealing. First, It is unclear why the process ‘would no doubt be subject to vexatious and politically motivated complaints’ whena process has yet to be established. Second, and leaving aside how a contention can provide a rationale, the demise of the ASA’s involvement in electoral advertising is rather more nuanced than the government appears to understand. The ASA remit at the time was related to the rules on denigration and offence. That role is not being proposed in the House of Lords recommendation, which is rather to ‘restrict fundamentally inaccurate advertising’. Further, the full history of this issue should include the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendation to parliament in 1999 ‘that political parties should establish a code of best practice in partnership with the advertising industry’. Nothing was done, and that is the reason why political advertising has not been subject to codes of advertising practice since 1999.

Finally, in this context, the government appears to be claiming that the lack of political advertising regulation for the past twenty years is some kind of evidence that it can’t be done. It is entirely clear from the wealth, if that is an appropriate description, of misleading electoral material that has been produced in the following years, that the absence of regulation has provided as a result evidence of why it must be re-established.

Political parties have come to understand that they can say what they like in political advertising and it won’t and can’t be challenged by any kind of independent authority, so they say it. That is a different circumstance to a) media or facilitator or audience challenge in live political debate online and offline, and b) the requirements placed on all other advertising. Does the government really believe that only political parties are capable of ‘vexatious and politically motivated complaint’ and that regulators have no experience of dealing with such matters?

2.5. A response to some final cynicism and patronisation from the government

This matter is best ‘regulated’ by an independent free press, alongside the laws on defamation and the long-standing electoral offence of false statements about a candidate.

By definition, an ‘independent free press’ should not and cannot ‘regulate’ electoral advertising, unless of course it is along the party political lines that the government might desire. Could it possibly be the case, for example, that The Guardian may take a different line on any political statement (in any channel) to The Sun? (Electoral Commission research in 2019 found that when people were asked to prioritise their concerns about the election from a list of issues, 67% of people said ‘media bias’ was a problem.) As for the ‘laws on defamation and the long-standing electoral offence of false statements about a candidate’, the government might like to cite when these were last deployed against party political advertising, famous for its false statements on just about everything.

We conclude by re-stating the case for the House of Lords recommendation:  absence of any kind of regulation of material statements in electoral advertising has led to gross abuse by all political parties; proof if proof were needed from our review here, and from countless other sources over the years.

The government response to the Recommendation from the House of Lords is defensive and evasive; it attempts to paint a clearly reasonable proposal as an attack on free political speech. It is no such thing: this is a simple and evidence-based proposal that in electoral advertising – the only channel that is not ‘regulated’ by formal or informal real time intervention, and political parties the only unregulated advertiser – that there should be some means to prevent the extreme and obvious (if not to the electorate) untruths from happening.

The Coalition For Reform in Political Advertising

Follow us on Twitter for regular campaign updates. 

We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. We’ve made great progress with our campaign to date but we still have a significant task now to engage with various stakeholders to ensure that political advertising is regulated as this post demonstrates.  We rely on donations to continue our work. Please donate here. We are very grateful for your support. 

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The House of Lords’ report ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust’ is a profoundly important document. The challenge now is how the recommendations are turned into action.

We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. Please consider donating to our campaign here. We rely on donations to continue our work.


 

We write as the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising; our concern, therefore, is largely with the issue of advertising within the bigger and broader subject of misinformation and disinformation so well explored by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies in their report of 29th June 2020 ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.’

The Report’s conclusions on political advertising are sound and very welcome, the recommendations cover all the points we have been campaigning for over several years. Most importantly we’d argue that the content of electoral political advertising should be regulated by the application of a Code of Conduct drawn up between a committee of existing regulators (The ASA, the Electoral Commission, the ICO and Ofcom) and political parties.

This is a major milestone – the first time that a significant parliamentary appointed committee has advocated the regulation of the content of electoral political advertising. It also comes after another development last month when the Advertising Standards Authority updated its official position to state that political advertising should be regulated.

We thank Lord Puttnam and the committee for their leadership in including this as one of the key recommendations of this comprehensive report.

However, our ultimate objective is the actioning of this recommendation. In common with many reports of this type, the ‘what’ is clear but the ‘how’ is not set out. In other words, there is no clear identification of specific next steps, which players are responsible for those, and by when action needs to be taken.

By way of example, the recommendation that (36): ‘The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum. This regulatory committee should adjudicate breaches of this code.’ Who does what next, therefore? What is their mandate to do that? Why should political parties come to the table?

In addition the Committee’s explorations, both in the general realm of misinformation and the specific territory of advertising reveal some challenges in turning the recommendations into legislation or other actions that will deliver the objective.

For example, the report has many references to the inconsistencies, evasions and obfuscations of the platforms and politicians under scrutiny.

We firmly believe the committee’s recommendation is the right side of history on this issue. The election in December was the perfect case study to demonstrate why change is needed. Independent regulators want regulation to happen, voters want regulation to happen. We now urgently need political leadership on the issue.

 


We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. Please consider donating to our campaign here. We rely on donations to continue our work.

 

 

 

Our response to the ASA’s call that “British political advertising must be regulated”

We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. Please consider donating to our campaign here. We rely on donations to continue our work. 


 

First, we should acknowledge and respect that some events are so shocking that they prevent consideration of just about any others. They stop you in your routine tracks, command most of your thoughts and lead you to wonder if we have made any progress at all in how we behave towards each other. So this intrusion is made with deference to those events and to the people directly or indirectly affected by them. 

You might reasonably think, therefore, that introducing the issue of reform of political advertising feels a little like advertising itself: a not-always-welcome interruption of subjects that are of more interest or import. On the other hand, you might also respect, as most do, that advertising is both commercially essential and that it can and does play a significant and positive role in society. 

Our topic, however, is not any old advertising – it’s political advertising, or to be more precise, political advertising that has, often famously, played a role in the election of governments or our departure from Europe. To those who are unaware, this form of advertising remains unregulated and it has been the mission of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising for the past several years to change that unhappy and almost ridiculous situation.

That is why we welcome with all the warmth we can muster in these socially cold times the article in today’s Guardian from Guy Parker, the CEO of the Advertising Standards Authority, who states the ASA are ‘ready to help.’ At last, an important head above the parapet and while we respect that the ASA may not be ‘the right body to lead political advertising regulation’, neither would the task be properly delivered without their skills, experience and reputation. 

We share the view that delivering a solution is ‘challenging’, but the real challenge is not lack of expertise, as Guy Parker points out, but the political will to listen to the 87% of voters who think that electoral advertising, as with any other, should be subject to regulation. 

The advertising of a bar of chocolate is subject to three laws and several codes of conduct; political advertising has more consequence, but the liberties that it takes as a result of the liberties provided leave a bitter taste for the great majority and cause profound offense to many.

We applaud Guy Parker and the ASA he leads for this significant contribution to long overdue reform in political advertising.

The Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising 


We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. Please consider donating to our campaign here. We rely on donations to continue our work. 

We need specific recommendations from the Electoral Commission on how to deal with disinformation in elections

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The Electoral Commission has changed its tone on disinformation in elections and referendums. That is a good development for democracy, but specific recommendations are needed on how to deal with the problem.

Our campaign to reform the rules around political advertising is two years old this month. It is extraordinary, as we’ve pointed out many times, that for all the talk and recommendations from a number of inquiries over the last few years there is still no sign of moves to introduce effective change in this area.

For content in electoral political advertising there are almost no rules. As advertising practitioners we were baffled by the glaring inconsistency between the rigorous standards of the Advertising Standards Authority in consumer advertising and the absence of anything remotely comparable for electoral advertising. In setting up the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising a key area we called for reform in were rules to prevent misleading material claims or, as the general public calls it, lying.

There could have been no more graphic demonstration of the need for reform than the 2019 general election. We documented blatantly misleading advertising from all the main parties in our review of the election period: our report was trenchantly titled Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful: how political advertising in the 2019 general election let us down.

We feel that we have now reached a crucial moment with public frustration at this arms race of disinformation. We suspect that some of this is due to the fact that the Covid-19 coronavirus has shown that similar techniques can not only be corrosive for democracy in elections, they can also have lethal consequences in the context of a global pandemic.

The Electoral Commission’s policies regarding electoral advertising have historically focused on such admittedly important areas as campaign funding and transparency to the virtual exclusion of what is communicated in adverts.

Accordingly, reading the Commission’s review released last month of the 2019 UK election we welcome how their position appears to have developed. They note there, as one of three key challenges posed by evolving election campaign strategies, that ‘misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust in election campaigns’. They comment in the review that ‘democracies rely on campaigners being able to communicate with voters. In return, voters need to be able to trust the information that campaigners are giving them’.

This very welcome step forward has evidently been prompted by the Electoral Commission’s researching of public attitudes. The level of public concern they found mirrors our own YouGov research, in which we asked the UK public, ‘Do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate’. No less than 87% of respondents answered that it should.

Now the Electoral Commission observes that ‘At the 2019 general election, voters were concerned about the use of misleading campaign techniques by campaigners from across the political spectrum. During the campaign period, we reminded campaigners that voters are entitled to transparency and integrity, and called on all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly.’

They continue, ‘There is evidence from our research after the election that concerns about truthfulness and transparency are having an impact on public trust and confidence:

  • More than half of people (58%) agreed with the statement that, in general, “campaigning online is untrue or misleading”
  • A similar proportion (60%) disagreed that “information available online about politics is trustworthy”.’

Given the many recommendations made over the last few years in a number of reports, including the Disinformation and Fake News report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Electoral Commission’s paragraph proposing steps to be taken is disappointingly light on detail.

They state ‘we have signalled our concern about these issues before. If voters lose trust and confidence in political campaigning, democracy as a whole will suffer. Campaigners, candidates and parties themselves need to take greater responsibility for the presentation and content of campaigns they run and the impact of their activities on public confidence in elections.

We cannot afford to miss the window of opportunity between now and the next scheduled general election. There needs to be real change to protect trust and confidence in campaigns at future elections and the integrity of our democracy. It will take governments, parties, campaigners, social media companies and regulators to work together to agree new laws or standards of conduct. We will support this work.’

Given the escalation we are seeing in discreditable political campaigning techniques, it is simply not sufficient to urge political advertisers to show greater responsibility: in our review of the election we recommended that the Advertising Standards Authority should be given teeth to enforce these ‘laws or standards of conduct’.

Through conversations with MPs and Lords, the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has gained many supporters for its proposals, most recently from the All-Party Group for Compassionate Politics, which was launched in March and is chaired by Baroness Warsi and Debbie Abrahams MP.

We’ve also given evidence to the House of Lords’ Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies which is due to report its recommendations in June.

To be clear, we really do welcome the direction of recommendations in the Electoral Commission’s report. We continue to lobby for this essential reform and are very willing to assist in drafting the detail of how it could be implemented.