A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom)

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012

This morning I blogged a defence of Tim Farron’s co-signing a letter challenging the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to ban an advert making the claim ‘God can heal’, citing its lack of scientific evidence.

This triggered a vigorous comments thread with a (generally) high standard of debate, which I’ve just been reading through.

My view is a minority one among the party it seems. That doesn’t bother me: for years I argued the Lib Dems’ anti-tuition fees policy was utterly unrealistic. What surprises me more are the reasons put forward by some liberals for whom I have a lot of respect in favour of the ASA’s ban.

For many the point of principle is this: the ASA upholds the rules on advertising; these rules state that the advertiser must provide scientific proof to back up their claims; and all rules must be applied equally, regardless of the claim being made.

I understand the logic of this position. I just happen not to think such a rules-based, absolutist approach to state regulation of free speech is especially liberal.

Liberals should not ban lightly. There is only one reason to ban something: if the specific activity you are seeking to outlaw will harm others.

There is no evidence that the Healing On The Streets ministry will harm those who choose to listen to their message. They say — and no-one has produced evidence to the contrary — that they urge all who come to them to continue to seek proper medical care and attention. What they offer is additional to qualified clinicians not a substitute for it. I cannot therefore see the liberal justification for banning their adverts.

And for those liberals for whom consistency of the ASA’s regulatory practices trumps considerations of free speech, be aware inconsistency is already built into the law — political advertising is (quite rightly, I think) exempt from ASA regulation.

Politics is a belief-based, subjective system, far too contentious to fit such a neat regulatory framework. And so too is religion.

For me, liberalism is about freedom above all: freedom of the individual to think, say and do whatever they please unless it can be shown their actions limit a fellow citizen’s freedoms. And it’s freedom which gives us the knowledge and confidence to make up our own minds about the contestable claims of politicians and pastors alike.

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24 comments

New post by me: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron http://t.co/L5KcjSlB

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012 at 6:11 pm. Reply #

Read this. Please. RT @stephentall: New post by me: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron http://t.co/ygiWoLLt

by Nick Thornsby on March 27, 2012 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

As I had mentioned on Twitter already, I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote – and what you write now.

Liberalism isn’t about being allowed to say what you think. Everyone thinks they should be allowed to say what they think. If someone truly believes all people from Liechtenstein are evil and ought to be banned from entering this country then of course they think they should be allowed to say that – that has nothing to do with liberalism or free speech. To me, liberalism is about defending other people’s rights to say things you absolutely disagree with, or do things you think are utterly stupid.

by Martijn on March 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm. Reply #

Read this. Please. RT @stephentall: New post by me: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron http://t.co/ygiWoLLt

by Zadok Day on March 27, 2012 at 6:26 pm. Reply #

RT @NickThornsby Read this. Please. RT @stephentall: New post by me: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron http://t.co/L5KcjSlB « Thx Nick!

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012 at 6:27 pm. Reply #

RT @NickThornsby Read this. Please. RT @stephentall: New post by me: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron http://t.co/L5KcjSlB « Thx Nick!

by Nissemus on March 27, 2012 at 6:37 pm. Reply #

[…] PS: many thanks for the vigorous debate in the comments! I’ve posted a postscript responding to the thread at my blog here: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom) […]

by In defence of Tim Farron: 3 liberal reasons to stick up for him on March 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm. Reply #

My LibDemVoice post in defence of @timfarron has sparked a fascinating debate http://t.co/VGChVaRi. I've responded here http://t.co/L5KcjSlB

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm. Reply #

Absolutely right. Truly frightening the reaction to this from (alleged) Liberals

by Simon McGrath on March 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm. Reply #

Stephen, I wouldn’t assume you are in a minority. The reaction of people who comment on-line can be very unrepresentative.

But well done for putting a coherent argument for your point of view. Not just because I agreed with you, but because it generated a serious debate that, I think, will have set some people thinking.

Me, for example. I hadn’t realised before this blew up quite how much power the ASA has to restrict freedom of speech. Hopefully, they are reasonable people who can be trusted, but we can’t rely on the those with that power always being reasonable and trustworthy.

by George Kendall on March 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm. Reply #

Freedom to make whatever claims you like in adverts is not the same thing as freedom as speech. Otherwise tobacco companies would still be allowed to claim that smoking cures asthma.

Healing On The Streets had an advert (have you read it by the way?) which claimed that prayer could cure:

“Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness”

Do you really not see how telling people that X can cure a crippling disease, when it can’t, might not cause harm?

As I said in my own blogpost on this subject:

“Very few Christians would be irresponsible enough to go around actively telling people that they should stop taking medicine and rely entirely on prayer. But it’s being disingenuous or naive in the extreme if you think that even claims that “prayer can heal” can’t cause harm – because when people see a medical claim they usually take it at face value. And it’s then very easy for some people to then think that, because X tells them that prayer heals, they no longer need to bother with actual medicine. And this, time and time again, produces fatal results (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/03/27/this-is-why-the-mps-letter-on-prayer-healing-is-so-dangerous/).”

http://thepotterblogger.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/christians-demanding-special-treatment.html

by George Potter on March 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm. Reply #

You’ve repeatedly claimed that this is about free speech and individual human rights. Advertising by organisations is not subject to the principles of human rights because organisations are not humans. You only need to look at the train wreck that is the US democratic system to realise what happens once you give organisations the status of human beings. ASA regulates publications by organisations, not humans (in as much as very few individual humans can afford significant amounts of advertising to express their individual opinions) and so cannot impinge on the human right to freedom of expression.

by Simon Oliver on March 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm. Reply #

But people have demonstrated the harm to society of allowing false claims in advertising. I don’t think you’ve engaged with the debate properly, and I don’t think you protecting the rights of the individual as much as those supporting the ASA’s ruling. Your are being more laissez-faire, not more Liberal.

by Paul Pettinger on March 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm. Reply #

Paul, you say “people have demonstrated the harm to society of allowing false claims in advertising”. I’ve not seen anyone demonstrate the harm to society of the Healing On The Streets ministry which is what this case hinges on. If you can demonstrate that, please do so.

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm. Reply #

[…] of Tim Farron March 27th, 2012 | Author: Paul TweetI’m in a minority of two with Stephen Tall. Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … […]

by Also in defence of Tim Farron | Liberal Burblings on March 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm. Reply #

Very good debate, have moderated my view slightly towards yours, but I still hold back given experience in Africa.

But genuinely the best debate I’ve seen us Lib Dems have for a while.

by Louise Shaw on March 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm. Reply #

@Paul Pettinger “I don’t think you’ve engaged with the debate properly”

Personally, I don’t think the others have engaged with Stephen’s points properly.

“I don’t think you protecting the rights of the individual as much as those supporting the ASA’s ruling.”

It depends on whether the HOTS group are clearly doing harm to individuals. If so, maybe restricting their advertising is justified.

They urge all who come to them to continue to seek proper medical care and attention. And if that means they aren’t doing any harm, then can that restriction of their freedom of speech be justified?

For myself, I’m not so exercised by this particular ASA judgement, but by the subjective way the code is written, which this case highlights.

If it only applied to advertisements for paid services, that would be less of a worry. But from reading the code, it applies to far far more than that, and the code could, with frail human beings administering it, lead to serious restrictions of freedom of speech.

The defence of liberty is eternal vigilance, so I think we should be wary of relying on the wisdom of those sitting in judgement.

by George Kendall on March 27, 2012 at 10:40 pm. Reply #

I don’t accept the premise that there is no harm or potential harm here.

Even if, as you suggest, this group encourages people not to discontinue medical treatment, they are using these positive and specific medical claims about the supernatural as a gateway to proselytise. This is a problem where those most susceptible are the vulnerable, particularly those who are very young, or who are mentally weak by reason of illness.

This moves the debate beyond a question of mere speech into the realms of coercive practices. Given the institutional power of religious organisations we cannot reduce all of their practices to simple matters of expression. This isn’t just about being able to attest their beliefs without external sanction. It is about them subtly imposing their views on those who, by reason of their circumstances, are unable to challenge or rationalise them.

A liberal might not be comfortable intervening into the religious realm, but we cannot and should not afford them special privilege when we hold other organisations to really rather modest standards of evidential proof in respect of specific scientific claims made in advertising material. Advertising material is specifically directed towards proselytism which is the religious equivalent of a commercial entity seeking clients. It concerns itself with something that is not simply speech but public promotion.

by Graeme Cowie on March 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm. Reply #

Waiting until known misinformation in an advert can be shown to of actually harmed people (rather than just being an anti-social nuisance) before taking action strikes me as both irrational and unethical. I am also not sure how such a system could work without involving much greater bureaucracy and financial cost.

by Paul Pettinger on March 27, 2012 at 11:02 pm. Reply #

Missed the Lib Dems' @TimFarron debate? My original LDV post here http://t.co/VGChVaRi and my PS here http://t.co/L5KcjSlB

by Stephen Tall on March 28, 2012 at 7:48 am. Reply #

Missed the Lib Dems' @TimFarron debate? My original LDV post here http://t.co/VGChVaRi and my PS here http://t.co/L5KcjSlB

by libdemvoice on March 28, 2012 at 7:49 am. Reply #

Tim, why do you support the principles of Jo Swinson’s desire to prevent airbrushed images, but not this latest ruling from the ASA: http://stephentall.org/2012/02/06/gangster-photo/

by Paul Pettinger on March 28, 2012 at 11:27 am. Reply #

Several points to add.

Harm and potential harm cannot be treated the same. Actual harm and imagined harm are not equal.

Individuals, representatives and organisations must have different status under the law regarding the applicability of inalienable human rights. Free speech cannot apply equally to each because each can only be held accountable in different ways.

@George Potter
Talking about false claims eg ‘Smoking cures asthma’.

Actually, while inhaling smoke is definitely not advantageous for asthma sufferers, learning to inhale directly into the lungs is vital for effective asthma treatment and prevention.

It is remarkable just how many people do not benefit from self-medication and experience little or no improvement during minor attacks after using a nebuliser or aerosol treatment because they are unpractised at inhaling.

So, in more than some cases ‘learning to smoke’ – ie inhaling, and rather than ‘smoking’ – does in fact aid asthma treatment.

I remember some wag said of Bill Clinton at the time of the way he denied teenage drug use: “I don’t know whether it is lucky or unlucky that he doesn’t have asthma.”

by Oranjepan on March 28, 2012 at 11:56 am. Reply #

Hi Stephen

I’ve put the question to Tim, so – as you seem to be taking a position even closer to this, as far as I can see above – can I probe exactly what you mean?

The nub: would you remove all restrictions on advertising standards and return to nothing but the old ‘caveat emptor’? I wouldn’t agree with you, but if you’d support the right of people to advertise neatly-bottled tap water as Dr Quack’s Miracle Elixir Which Will Deliver Eternal Life, that’s in my opinion a bad step backwards for consumer protection but a logically consistent free-for-all.

If not, I don’t see how you can justify extra-special treatment to exempt claims for one group or sort of group from the same standards as any other advertising. Otherwise, it’s perverting the law for special favours.

Independently prove it works, fine. But if all you can say is ‘I believe it heals, and you can’t prove it harms’ (and ignore all the studies, as cited by numerous other Lib Dem posters on this very topic), then you must surely champion Dr Quack’s Tap Water Elixir too. That’s if you support free speech as you say, of course.

If you have a cut-off point for free speech, what is it, and who decides it? And how can that be done fairly?

I have no problem with ads around genuinely theological claims that can’t be proved – ‘There’s a god’ / ‘No there isn’t’ / ‘Our god is best’ and so on.

This isn’t a bit theological, though. It’s a direct medical / physiological claim. It’s not competing with other faiths and none – it’s making a direct, verifiable claim about physical benefits in this world, not the existence of the next. So it has to be open to the same standards. If it’s making statements in competition with the material world, with BUPA and Glaxo, then to say it shouldn’t have to meet the same strict standards (or homeopathy shouldn’t, or anything else that makes medical claims) just, er, because it’s special, is protectionism. No ifs, no buts.

by Alex Wilcock on March 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm. Reply #

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