We should drop the ban on political advertising on TV

by Stephen Tall on April 24, 2013

european court of human rightsThis week saw the failure of the attempt by Animal Defenders International to overturn the the UK’s ban political advertising on radio and television. The Guardian reports:

By a narrow majority decision, judges at the European court of human rights in Strasbourg have ruled that preventing the broadcast of a commercial – showing a girl in chains in a chimpanzee’s cage – did not violate freedom of expression. …

The animal rights group lost its appeals in both the high court and the House of Lords before taking the case to the ECHR in Strasbourg. In a majority decision, the court found that “both parties maintained that they were protecting the democratic process [and] that the reviews of the ban by both parliamentary and judicial bodies had been exacting and pertinent”. The judges pointed out that “the ban only applied to advertising and the applicant NGO had access to alternative media, both broadcast and non-broadcast”.

They added that “the lack of European consensus on how to regulate paid political advertising in broadcasting meant that the UK government had more room for manoeuvre when deciding on such matters as restricting public interest debate. Overall, the court found that the reasons given to justify the ban were convincing and that the ban did not therefore go too far in restricting the right to participate in public debate.”

I’ve no particular problem with the Court’s decision: it seems reasonable for the decision on whether to ban such advertising to be made democratically by politicians. However, I do believe the ban should be dropped — but only if we can be assured of simultaneous reforms to party funding.

Here’s how I summarised my view in four sentences when debating this very issue last summer:

I believe in free expression and can see absolutely no justification for continuing to ban political advertising on television.

I also believe in level playing fields in the market-place, though, and so any lifting on the ban would have to go hand-in-hand with a cap on the amount political parties/groups can spend pushing their point of view.

As I’ve argued before, the existing cap on spending is already too high, creating very real barriers for entry for new parties.

Lifting the ban while leaving party funding unreformed will simply allow those parties/groups with the deepest pockets to entrench further their market dominance.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.