Home / Blog / The need for rules for political advertising content is as urgent as ever

The need for rules for political advertising content is as urgent as ever

Alex Tait

On 29 January, we wrote an article for The Byline Times, ‘Political Ads that Lie Will Never Be Tamed Without Regulation’, which pointed out that an otherwise thorough report from a Cross-Party Group of MPs, ‘Defending Our Democracy in a Digital Age’, had missed a critical issue in failing to make recommendations that will establish an efficient and effective process of regulation of the content of electoral political advertising.

A response from the group was published, again in The Byline Times, with what we believe to be some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions, so we felt we should reply. We recognise that regulatory ping-pong does not attract large audiences, but this is an issue of great concern to voters.

The core of the APPG’s response, reacting to our YouGov finding that 9/10 voters believe that accuracy in political advertising should be ‘a legal requirement’, is to contend: ‘when you take it a step further and ask them who they believe is lying … the response is almost always the ‘other side’ – ‘who people believe is entirely dependent on how they vote.’ This view is attributed to ‘sources’, but those sources did not seem to include a significant sample of voters.

We recognise that there is inherent voter bias, especially among more committed party supporters, but the more likely voter response to ‘who is lying?’ is actually “all of them.” There is widespread distrust of all electoral political advertising among all voters. Besides, even if it were the case that it is ‘the other side’ who are deemed to be at fault, then surely that is an argument for those who feel that way to be able to complain about that other side to an independent authority? Why do strong feelings on any side make the idea of an arbiter less rather than more valuable?

A key recommendation of the APPG is a ‘fact-checker’ coalition. Clearly, there is merit in deploying fact checking in some way, but a) the way in which this might work is entirely unclear and b) there are a number of reasons why such a proposal does not and cannot address a significant proportion of the advertising that transgressed various rules in the 2019 General Election.

The fact-checker coalition (FCC) will apparently have “clear, transparent duties and fact-finding procedures to provide trustworthy, impartial information in areas of public concern. That body could at least offer a way to rebut certain factual statements. If done in collaboration with the sites on which most ads appear, these stories could be countered in real-time.” There would certainly be technical challenges in executing this with the numerous ads that appear weekly over an election period, but more importantly:

i) What will be the FCC’s status? Will it have powers and resource e.g. to pre-vet or to provide advice on planned party political advertising?

ii) Is the voter supposed to refer to the FCC? Will it have public recognition? Will there be a requirement, for example, for all advertising to reference the FCC?

iii) Is this a coalition of existing fact-checkers, for example the BBC’s or Full Fact, or is this a new fact-checking body in which case is there potential for conflict with the established fact-checkers?

The APPG might reasonably argue that the issues above can be addressed and that we are some way from the next election. To voters in major cities, of course, we’re not: elections happen in May of this year and there seems to be no particular reason why there shouldn’t be objective scrutiny of local elections in the same way as that which should be applied to national polls.

There is, however, another reason why an FCC doesn’t cut the electoral advertising mustard: many of the issues in the advertising that appeared in the 2019 election campaign were factually correct, but grossly misleading. We show two examples below:

This Liberal Democrat letter reproduced above, received in the Golders Green constituency, 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. The ‘imprint’ required by the Electoral Commission, very small in this case, shows that the letter is from the Liberal Democrats. Mike Smithson is also a former Liberal Democrat politician, a ‘fact’ not disclosed in the letter. Both the law and the self-regulatory system refer to misleadingness by omission; it’s difficult to check a fact when it (in most cases, deliberately) isn’t there.

The reference above is to the press office Twitter account for the Conservative party rebranding itself as factcheckUK for the duration of the leaders’ TV debate, issuing a series of ‘correcting’ statements on the Labour leader’s ‘lies’. Those corrections may or may not have been factually accurate – the issue is that this is also grossly misleading advertising as it purports to be from an objective fact-checking source when it is, closely scrutinised, actually from CCHQ. It should be noted that while Tweets are not per se paid for, they are considered to be within ASA remit in regulated advertising.

A further aspect of electoral advertising that would not be ‘caught’ by an FCC is the likes of the Brexit party advertising, reproduced below, that ran in Alyn and Deeside: ‘For the many, not the Jew’. The video ‘Vox-pops’ a number of members of the public, presumably Jewish, who explain their nervousness of a Corbyn government. The advertising states that the Labour party is anti-Semitic, and shows extracts from the Andrew Neill interview with Jeremy Corbyn. This is highly offensive advertising, but unlikely to be within the scope of any fact-checking service.

The Leveson problem, and the solution

The second element of the APPG response was to point to the ‘Leveson problem … when the actors themselves are given the power to regulate themselves, they don’t do much regulating.’ While respecting the point that those who don’t wish to be regulated aren’t proficient in regulation, we’re not too sure that the hundreds of thousands of advertisers who support the ASA – arguably the most effective and productive advertising self-regulatory organisation in the world – would accept that ‘they don’t do much regulating.’

The key to this issue is in the above reference to the willingness of the relevant actors: if politicians – Parliament specifically, not ‘Government’- won’t agree that there needs to be a robust regulatory process that prevents the egregious examples that voters were subjected to in the 2019 election, then it won’t happen, and that will be a considerable let-down of the 87% of voters who think it should.

The solution is not in our hands. It is in the hands of those politicians who accept that this situation – where effectively the only advertising that isn’t regulated is the most important advertising of all – can no longer continue. As soon as politicians agree that simple premise, then the business of bringing about regulation that will allow the concept of truth in electoral political advertising can begin to happen.

We request that the APPG reconsider the proposals set out in their paper linked above. We can make this happen together: we understand advertising and its regulation and you understand political process: between us, we should be able to right the wrongs in electoral political advertising?

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising



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