A big thank you to the Conservative party (or ‘4, Matthew Parker Street’)

The above leaflet (you can view it in full here) produced by or on behalf of the Conservative candidate for London mayor, Shaun Bailey, is a considerable help to us and to others. It provides the perfect example of why new rules must urgently be introduced to prevent this kind of shabby manipulation of the existing inadequate regulatory regime.


The leaflet makes a series of material claims related to TFL expenditure without providing any substance or attributing any source to the numbers. If this wasn’t ‘electoral material’ that would not be permitted. Additionally, while the leaflet is clearly (to those more initiated in the dark arts) election material, it doesn’t properly identify itself as such. The requirement in printed material from PPERA/ The Electoral Commission is (cynically) delivered by the promoter’s, and the ‘person on whose behalf the material is published’, statement of their joint address, without the helpful addition of the tenant’s name – Conservative Campaign HQ.


While this example is more grist to the mill for ourselves and the 87% of voters who want to see proper regulation of electoral advertising, it is also and more importantly continuing to reduce standards in the electoral process at voters’ and democracy’s expense. Despite rather more practice, London doesn’t seem to deliver to its voters any better than Washington.

Many thanks to @vauxhallwoman for sending the leaflet on to us.

The Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising

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

The Government’s proposals for the introduction of digital imprints in electoral advertising are disappointing for three reasons, only two of which are obvious.

It’s clear that digital imprints, i.e. the means by which political parties and other campaigners can be identified in online advertising, should be introduced as soon as possible, if not earlier. This plan is simply an extension of the requirement applicable to printed material, one that the Electoral Commission have been recommending for more than fifteen years, and one that was in our original four-point plan several years ago.

That is the first disappointment: this consultation is terribly late; at least three General Elections or referenda have happened without benefit of the increased transparency this proposal would have provided if enacted. 

The above is the first of the obvious disappointments. Still, better late than never.

The second obvious disappointment is that the proposals fail to deliver what voters really want in electoral advertising: not just advertising where it’s clear who is behind it – that is, after all, a bare minimum in any other advertising and anyway required by law – but advertising that does not permit the kind of misleading statements that have so besmirched electoral advertising over at least the past twenty years.

That oversight, or deliberate omission, as the case may be, is an obvious disappointment because the regulation of the content of electoral advertising is an issue on which we have campaigned for some years and because it’s so blatantly the right thing to do – for voters, for politicians and for the whole electoral process and therefore for democracy.

While, as with the other disappointment above, that would appear to be an obvious case, we commissioned YouGov research specifically for this consultation that found that 64% of voters thought it very important that …’it is clear which political party is responsible for an advert’ but that 77% thought that…’political parties’ adverts do not make false or misleading claims.’

This finding, in case it suffers from the inevitable accusation of research findings suiting those who paid for them, is supported by two other pieces of evidence:

‘As with traditional campaign materials, identifying a trustworthy source was important in establishing the credibility of a message. However, although identifying a trusted source helped to reassure participants that campaign material was bona fide, this did not always mean that they believed the information contained in the message. This is because there is a distrust of campaign messages and statements made by politicians more generally.’

And

‘The core concern for participants throughout the research was the believability and trustworthiness of the content they consumed during election campaigns.’ (emphasis per the research document).

  • A study we commissioned in December 2019, which 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 from YouGov. 

The third disappointment is rather less obvious. This should be an entirely straightforward exercise: an extension of the identification regime that exists in electoral print advertising into the online space. Such an exercise should surely not tax, as it were, the Cabinet Office? 

We do not particularly recommend the reading of the consultation document itself, linked above. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but these processes are not intended to produce a rattling good yarn: just some solid evidence-based thinking, clearly articulated, on how the government plans to go about this workaday exercise. 

Where it deals with the matters specific to the online identification process that it sets out to deliver, the document fails on four counts: it fails properly to define two different aspects of scope, it practically guarantees inconsistency in application, it pays no attention to what voters want in execution of this process, and some aspects of its drafting should make the Cabinet Office blush if they were capable of displaying such humility. You can read our full response, should you wish, here.

But the deep and central flaw of the proposals in this consultation is that it is simply not possible to address the scope of the imprint extension proposals and the maelstrom of advertising in the digital world without recognizing that who advertisers are is inevitably and directly connected with what they say. Indeed, what they say often identifies who they are. It is only the combination of regulatory measures – identification and material content – that will deliver to voters and to democracy.  

At least the government might have got the Identification measure right, but on the evidence of this consultation, apparently not even that could be managed.

The Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising


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

Our submission to the Cabinet Office’s “Transparency in digital campaigning: technical consultation on digital imprints”

Below if our full submission to the Cabinet Office’s consultation:

In section 9, we have included questions to monitor the regulatory burden of this regime on business (for example, technical, administrative, legal and communication costs associated with compliance). Would you like to answer these questions? 

 Yes 

 No 

Proposal 1: Extension of regime

Question 1: Do you agree or disagree with this proposal for the extension of the imprints regime to digital election material? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 2: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

This move is long overdue; we believe that various organisations, ours among them, have been advocating the extension of printed material imprints into online for many years.

Question 3: Do you agree or disagree that this regime will improve the transparency of digital election material? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 4: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

As far as we are aware, the term ‘transparency’ is not defined here. Digital imprints, if correctly executed, will improve transparency in the sense that the source of the material will be more clear in some cases (for much material it is already clear). The content of the material, however, would remain unaffected under these proposals and that is of greater concern to voters, evidence for which statement will follow below. That material frequently lacks transparency when, for example, quoting statistics or presenting opinion polls. Examples here.

Question 5: What do you consider to be the main benefits of the digital imprints proposal? 

See above –  the source of the material will be more clear in some cases.

Question 6: Do you have any other comments on this proposal?

We have two areas of concern about this proposal, the first somewhat ‘technical’, the second rather broader. Both we request should be carefully considered.

1) We suggest that some aspects of the ‘Extension of regime’ paragraphs are unclear and potentially confusing (and perhaps should not be separated in the way that they are from elements of Proposal 2, Material subject to the regime). Below are some extracts from the proposal with our commentary added. The authors of the consultation document may have to forgive some of the more arcane points:

  • Under the proposal, the terms ‘content of websites or equivalent apps; website advertising;’ are used. We suggest it may be appropriate to establish whether such websites are third party or owned?
  • Under Explanation: ‘We want to catch all relevant communication channels, from social media adverts to podcasts, websites and messaging services. a) What is meant by ‘relevant’ communication channels? Relevant to what? b) A ‘social media advert’ is not a channel. c) Per above point, is the term ‘websites’ intended to include owned websites? The intent might be made more clear?
  • We suggest that it may be more productive to maintain focus on the nature of the material rather than the channel which, as is pointed out, will anyway evolve. The key scope decisions should surely not be so much related to channels, but to the role and purpose of the material within the (paid and unpaid) channels?
  • In that context, we note that the election material is defined as ‘material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates or material that relates wholly or mainly to a referendum’. Additionally, under footnote 8, ‘regulated activity’ is defined as activity ‘that can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters.’
  • We dwell on what might seem to be pedantic points because of the way in which third party campaigning appears to operate. Much significant material is not directly connected with ‘the procurement of electoral success…’ etc. The terms used to define regulated activity seem more appropriate and are consistent with, incidentally, the terms used in the ASA definition in this context.
  • In the same context of third party campaigning, the definitions of ‘paid material’ and ‘unpaid or organic material’, particularly the latter, are inadequate in our view. Confining unpaid material to that which is ‘shared to a community such as a campaigner’s ‘friends’ or ‘followers’’ opens some substantial doors. (It is anyway not the material that is unpaid, but the channel/ medium.)
  • Equally, the requirement that the registration of third party campaigners is predicated on a spend of over £20,000 seems somewhat arbitrary and not necessarily sensitive to the dynamics in social media. Level of spend as the distinction between registered and unregistered third party campaigners does not recognise how some campaigners can reach significant audiences via a post on Instagram with nil spend and a £20k spend from other campaigners does not ripple the pool. It is anyway not what they spend that matters so much to voters, but what they say and how they say it, of which more later. 
  • This aspect of scope is also considered under Proposal 2, Material subject to the regime. Questions 15 and 16 ask for views on ‘issue-based advertising from third party organisations or campaign groups.’ We have answered the question as best we can, but, again, it is not clear how such groups differ, if at all, from those identified in this Proposal 1, and how ‘issue-based’ advertising appears to place such advertising in a ‘wider’ context. 
  • The more malign influences that have been the subject of past and recent media speculation and parliamentary debate do not seem to be addressed specifically and are of concern to voters. Point 25 under Policy Objectives states: We are bringing forward new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to disrupt hostile state activity.’ It is not clear where these plans connect with the ‘Transparency in digital campaigning’ proposals and the extent to which the existing regime (in this context, the Electoral Commission) is required to address or review hostile state activity and how, for example, obtaining a registration and imprint under false pretenses is precluded. 
  • The central and most significant issues from the above are those related to definitions within the planned scope of this extension. On the basis of the analysis/ commentary above, we suggest that there may be room for some tightening of definitions and a consideration of whether plans take into full account the nature of some aspects of campaigning and its potential (low cost) impact?

2) We regard the proposal as necessary but insufficient and we are concerned that the Cabinet Office/ government is using the introduction of digital imprints as a means by which they can continue to avoid the pressing need for regulation of material (as in quantifiable) claims in electoral advertising, together with other reforms that have been identified.

Under point 21 of Policy objectives the cabinet Office states: ‘The intention is not to create a regime which will police the accuracy or truthfulness of content. Policy or political arguments which can be rebutted by rival campaigners or an independent free press as part of the normal course of political debate are not regulated. The Government does not support the creation of a new body to regulate the content of political statements.’ We address this point below, as it is fallacious, and germane to the case that follows.

  • The statement uses language that is redolent of the Government’s response to the House of Lords Select Committee Report ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust’. Deliberately or otherwise, that response, and point 21 above, fails even to address properly the Select Committee’s recommendation under para 36 that 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.’
  • The recommendation is absolutely clear that it seeks a process that ‘restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising.’ The Government’s response, and the Cabinet Office’s point 21 above, positions the idea of regulation of material claims in electoral advertising as a regulation of ‘political statements’ and supposes that those can be ‘rebutted by rival campaigners or an independent free press.’ The Cabinet office will be aware that  ‘rival campaigners’, or any other mechanism currently available, cannot in real time rebut advertising, and that the ‘independent free press’ aligns itself at election times:  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. 
  • This government/ Cabinet Office defense of the ongoing exploitation and abuse of the only, and arguably the most important, unregulated space in advertising might at least provide voters with the dignity of some solidity in their defense, or perhaps it is simply indefensible? 

We know that voters consider the regulation of the content of electoral material to be more important than identification of it source. This month, October 2020, we fielded proprietary research via YouGov specifically for the purposes of informing this consultation, which revealed the following:

Q: ‘We would like you to think about the adverts that political parties put out at elections. This could be posters, adverts in newspapers or advertisements online or on social media. Thinking about the rules and guidelines that might govern such advertisements, how important do you think it is that…

 …it is clear which political party is responsible for an advert?’     %…that political parties’ adverts do not make false or misleading claims?’ %
Very important 6477
Fairly important178
TOTAL IMPORTANT8185
Not very important53
Not important at all32
TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT85
Don’t Know 127

This research is consistent with findings of a study we commissioned in December 2019, which 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%.

Additionally, Electoral Commission research ‘Political Finance Regulation and Digital Campaigning: A Public Perspective’ from March 2018[1]  found that, inter alia:

‘As with traditional campaign materials, identifying a trustworthy source was important in establishing the credibility of a message. However, although identifying a trusted source helped to reassure participants that campaign material was bona fide, this did not always mean that they believed the information contained in the message. This is because there is a distrust of campaign messages and statements made by politicians more generally.’

And

‘The core concern for participants throughout the research was the believability and trustworthiness of thecontent they consumed during election campaigns.’ (note: emphasis per the research document).

Graphically:

The above evidence is overwhelming and its sources impeccable: this proposal is inadequate as it stands and should not be allowed to substitute for a proper response to voter demands; identifying the liar does not mitigate the lie.

Finally, we have lodged an FOI request with the Electoral Commission for the raw data behind their post 2019 election research to which you refer under point 8 of Policy background, as there is evidence from some of the available summaries to suggest that this research also found that voters’ concerns were more associated with content than the identification of its source. (‘Misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust in election campaigns.’) We had not received a reply at the time of writing, though the period concerned remains within the official response time. 

Proposal 2: Material subject to the regime

Question 7: Do you agree or disagree that the regime should be extended to registered political parties, registered third party campaigners, candidates, holders of elected office and registered referendum campaigners – both paid and unpaid (or ‘organic’) material? 

 Strongly agree (in principle, subject to the caveats below)

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree

Question 8: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here.

While we are, per our ‘strong agreement’ statement above, in favour of this extension, we have concerns about the definitions, and therefore scope, as provided in the consultation document. By way of brief explanation and related to the points made above, it is unclear to us why “Unregistered third party campaigners” are defined according to their level of spend, when significant activity is often ‘free’, or rather more formally ‘Unpaid’, ‘Owned’ or ‘Earned.’ Per above points, surely the issue here is the identification of the type of material that ‘qualifies’ for registration by its authors, unless they are ‘members of the public expressing their personal political views in a private capacity.’

We are bemused by the second paragraph under ‘Material subject to the regime.’ To what form of ‘digital content’ is the first sentence referring?

Question 9: Do you agree or disagree that the regime should be extended to prospective office holders (both paid and unpaid, or ‘organic’, material)? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 10: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here.

See earlier comments regarding definitions and scope. 

Question 11: Do you agree or disagree that the regime should be extended to unregistered third party campaigners promoting paid material only? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 12: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

See comments above re definitions. Additionally, there is no explanation as to why unpaid material from unregistered third party campaigners is exempted, and we would have thought it essential to cover this base as much of the material from this source would likely be aimed at this space. Coverage/ impact is no longer a function of spend alone: again, we suggest that the scope might be more to do with the nature of the material rather than the extent of the budget behind it. 

Unpaid material of the type described above is in remit in (most) advertising regulation managed by the ASA, provided that it meets the definition of ‘advertising’, the equivalent in this case being ‘material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates or material that relates wholly or mainly to a referendum’, (albeit we have commented on this definition).

Question 13: Do you agree or disagree with the distinction made in this proposal between paid and unpaid material? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 14: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

We’re not sure this question is clear. We agree that there should be a distinction, but as we have already suggested above, the definitions are in our view inadequate. So the distinctions as provided we do not agree with, and as we have also said we regard the ‘real’ test (the material) as being the first. We also suggest that the drafting under ‘Explanation’ might be enhanced; we’re not sure, for example, whether the description ‘anyone not publishing election material’ is referring to those who might be publishing ‘wider online political advertising’ or other forms of political advertising activity or none at all? We are also uncertain about the consistent use of the term ‘publish’ as it appears to be capable of interpretation as including ‘publishers’, such as third party websites. Does the Cabinet Office intend this? 

Question 15: Do you agree or disagree that the regime should be expanded beyond what is considered election material (as set out in this proposal), to wider online political advertising? 

● Strongly agree 

● Agree 

● Neither agree nor disagree 

● Disagree 

● Strongly disagree 

Question 16: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

We take the definition of ‘wider online political advertising’ to be that expressed under point 24: ‘…for example issue-based advertising from third party organisations or campaign groups. We welcome feedback on whether digital imprints should be expanded beyond what is considered election material, to wider online political advertising.

The question is very challenging, as the definition is loose and the issues arising are complex and significant. (We have earlier indicated that consideration might be given to the definition of ‘election material’ in the light of the development of campaigning, and there does not appear to be a definition of ‘issue-based’ advertising, or why ‘election material’ wouldn’t be ‘issue-based’ advertising?)  

Notwithstanding the above, it is our view that it would not be appropriate to require digital imprints from the organisations and material in the spirit of the identification above. On the one hand, the implication is that such requirement implies a very heavy regulatory hand, and on the other some kind of endorsement of these organisations. 

The real issue is anyway not so much the formal identification of these organisations and groups but what they say in their campaigning, as it is the content that will or may influence voters. We suspect that such organisations as identified above, knowing as they will that there is no regulation of the content of electoral advertising, would happily incorporate an imprint in the event of its requirement, thus ‘sanctioning’ the organisation and by implication its (unregulated) messaging, which may imply whether there should be consideration of whether such organisations would be ‘entitled’ to an imprint if they applied for one?

That is the deep and central flaw of the proposals in this consultation. It is simply not possible to address the scope of the imprint extension proposals and the maelstrom of the digital world without recognizing that who they are is inevitably and directly connected with what they say. Indeed, what they say often identifies who they are. It is only the combination of regulatory measures – identification and material content – that will deliver to voters and to democracy. 

Question 17: Do you agree or disagree that the digital imprints rules should apply to all forms of elections and referendums (beyond those already listed in the proposal and excluding devolved elections and referendums)? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 18: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

We don’t understand the question. The definitions under ‘the regime is intended to cover’ seemed right. We don’t think we’re best placed to comment on territorial application; our view is only that there should be consistency across the U.K. wherever possible and reasonable, as the boundaries to which the proposals refer do not apply in the online advertising environment.

Question 19: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

We would only like to re-iterate that as well as our specific responses in terms of agreements or otherwise, and our particular issue on the material content of advertising, our principal concerns or issues also relate to the structure and clarity of the proposal and the accuracy of some of the drafting of its individual components.

Proposal 3: Details on the imprint

Question 20: Do you agree or disagree with the proposal on the details to be contained within the imprint i.e. the name and address of the promoter of the material and the name and address of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 21: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

Before we respond specifically, it may be appropriate to establish some principles/ objectives for the approach to identification of election material. We suggest:

  1. Such identification should serve the voter, who wants to know who is responsible for the content of the material and how, if necessary, they might easily be reached
  2. Identification per above should be as simple, clear and consistent as possible

It is unclear to us why it is necessary to require in all cases the name and address of the promoter of the material and the name and address of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published. We are aware that this is the requirement for printed material. 

We struggle to understand the value of a name and address for both the ‘promoter’ and the name and address of the person on whose behalf the material is published. The requirement for two sets of addresses in an online environment would provide real challenges in layout in much digital advertising space, and the easy excuse for advertisers to revert to the fallback link. We also struggle to understand why specifically an address is required versus an email address, required to be properly attended and fully secure. Additionally, a PO Box address is not a simple real-time solution: is it really believed that people are more likely to write to a PO Box address versus sending an email? Finally, from our own experience, we can confirm that response to issues we raised with all political parties in the 2019 General Election was, with a single exception, non-existent.

Question 22: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

A simple request – that what should be avoided at all costs is a requirement for a mass of (necessarily) small ‘spider’ type at the bottom of an ad. Voters hate it, agencies hate it, and advertisers hate it.  

We also note that there are no proposals for a minimum font size, as is the case for example in a number of European countries where ‘responsibility messages’ are required in e.g. alcohol or gambling advertising. ‘Abuse by hiding’ of the imprint requirement in printed material was considerable in the 2019 General Election.

Proposal 4: Location of the imprint

Question 23: Do you agree or disagree with the proposal for the location of the imprint – that the imprint must be located as part of the material where it is practical to do so and where it is not practical, must be accessible from the material? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 24: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

Question 25: How do you think digital platforms can facilitate campaigners to include imprints? 

By telling them what to do – providing a simple set of digital material and instructions/ guidance prepared by the Electoral Commission – and refusing to publish material that doesn’t carry an imprint or link fallback. There are already, of course, some mechanisms in place in that regard. 

Question 26: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

The proposal is insufficiently clear on, and demanding of, the requirements for different types of digital material. We recognize that the consultation document requires that ‘we want the law to focus on platform-neutral solutions to ensure that it is future-proofed for rapid changes in technology. This means that the imprint will apply to any kind of digital election material on any platform’, but we predict that this very ‘loose’ brief will lead to mass bail-out into links. If that is what the Cabinet Office prefers, so be it, and that result would probably be preferential to poor executions of very detailed and specific requirements to include the kitchen sink (or two kitchen sinks) in all material.

Proposal 5: Appearance of the imprint

Question 27: Do you agree or disagree with the proposal for what the imprint should look like – permanent, embedded and visible/audible, clearly readable/legible/audible and replicable? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 28: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

The following does not ‘explain’ our response exactly. Proposal 5 states ‘The promoter of the material is responsible for ensuring that the imprint is…’ etc. As far as we can establish, the term ‘promoter’ is not defined under this proposal (but is later, in our view inadequately). Additionally, the proposal seems light on executional guidance.

Question 29: What would campaigners need from digital platforms in order to comply with the rules? 

Simple, accessible help either to access the imprint itself in appropriate form or to a source where it can be accessed. 

Question 30: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

It would be helpful to include a ‘dummy’ example/ template in various forms. We assume there are anyway plans to do so in the next stages.

Proposal 6: Re-publishing of election material

Question 31: Do you agree or disagree with the proposal for the re-publishing or ‘sharing’ of material? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 32: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

We regard the proposal as reasonable, albeit the drafting allows too much ‘room’ –  the proposal does not remind of the imprint requirements, and the term ‘campaigner’ is not defined in this context. It would not, therefore, be clear as to who should do what exactly.

Question 33: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

There is no mention of data processing rules in the context of sharing material. This may not matter in this context, but might do so when final ‘rules’ are drafted.

Proposal 7: Territoriality

Question 34: Do you agree or disagree with the proposal that the regime will apply to all election material regardless of where it has been promoted from? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 35: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

Question 36: Do you have any other comments on this proposal? 

We are again concerned about some aspects of the drafting.

Section 8: Enforcement

Question 37: Do you agree or disagree that the relevant authorities are in a position to effectively enforce digital imprints? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 38: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

We regard the Election Commission as well placed effectively to enforce the correct application of digital imprints. We would seek, however, some reassurance that they have a productive working relationship with key social media platforms in particular. 

Question 39: Do you agree or disagree that civil sanctioning powers should be extended for use in relation to offences committed concerning election material in support of candidates? 

 Strongly agree 

 Agree 

 Neither agree nor disagree 

 Disagree 

 Strongly disagree 

Question 40: Please provide any further detail to explain your response here. 

None

Question 41: Do you have any further comments on this section? 

No

…………………………………………………


[1] (Note: this GFK research is available on the Electoral Commission website and therefore in the public domain; clearly we have extracted elements of the research that support our specific case, but we are very confident that we are not misrepresenting the full study)

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

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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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