Conservative Home

« Andrew Lilico: Let's get a few things straight regarding "austerity" | Main | Dan Boucher: A lesson from Wales. Labour has Co-op candidates. We should have Mutual ones. »

George Eustice MP: It's time to update our antiquated laws on political advertising

Eustice George 2013George Eustice is MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.

I am no fan of the ECHR and would abolish the Human Rights Act, so I think it is right that decisions about where to allow political advertising in Britain should be a matter for our own national Parliament.  However, those of us who no longer want to contract out decisions affecting people's rights to foreign courts must ensure that our own Parliament engages fully in such debates.  The case brought by Animal Defenders International has highlighted the woeful inadequacy of our current laws on broadcast political advertising.

Britain has some of the most draconian restrictions on political advertising in the free world.  It is not just the U.S which is usually cited.  Most other European countries allow some political advertising with the new democracies in central and eastern Europe generally being the most liberal.  Commonwealth countries such as Australia with the same political constitution as us also allow political advertising subject to certain limits.  In stark contrast, in Britain it is ok to advertise toys to young children at 6.30 am while their parents are still in bed - but advertising political ideas to grown adults is considered beyond the pale.  It’s time for change.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Communications Act 2003 that followed represented an opportunity to revisit the approach we take to broadcast advertising but it was an opportunity squandered.  Once we had introduced strict limits on party spending, introduced longer terms for election periods and banned foreign donations altogether then the arguments against political advertising became largely redundant.  The current position in the UK is something of an anomaly.  The original principle predates the internet to start with which will drive future change.  We have also always allowed political advertising in cinemas.  Ten years ago, the no campaign against the euro spent over £1 million on a powerful advert seen by some 5 million cinema goers.

Many make the lazy assertion that they don't want US style attack ads.  Leaving aside the fact that the US system can lead to more energetic debate, political advertising in Britain need not have an American accent.  We would have political adverts that fitted our own political culture.  We already have rules which prevent political parties using footage of their opponents in Party Broadcasts.  The "read my lips" attack on George Bush snr and the "flip flop" attack on John Kerry would both have been banned under rules the UK already has in place for Party Political Broadcasts.

Others say that allowing political advertising would favour those with deep pockets but since the PPERA all parties have their spending strictly limited anyway.  Furthermore, that is not a principled objection, it is simply a matter of detail.  If people want to introduce a separate limit on the amount any organisation can spend specifically on broadcast advertising, then that is easily done.

I have argued that we could make a good start by modernising our system of Party Political Broadcasts.  Rather than allowing each main party just three broadcasts of 4 minutes 40, why not allow them to have a fifteen minute time allocation in an election period that can be used up in more frequent but shorter broadcasts of 1 minute.  That way you would increase the chance of voters seeing broadcasts and make it more likely they will stay tuned until the end but they would still be long enough to feel distinct from a standard 30 second advert.  Furthermore access to broadcasts would be free and allocated in the same way as now.

We all know that many people in our society regard "politics" as a dirty word but those of us who choose to become active in politics do so because we know that you cannot have democracy without it nor without the cut and thrust of political argument.  We should not seek to stifle debate.  If parliament had done its job properly when the PPERA was introduced, Animal Defenders International might never have had to bring a case before the European Court.  At the very least, this case should prompt a review of our antiquated laws on political advertising.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.