Who benefits from lifting the ban on paid political advertising?
Author: Zoe Stavri
Published on Aug 28, 2012
The ban on paid political advertising on UK television may soon be lifted. As it stands, the 2003 Communications Act does not allow “campaigning on issues or seeking to influence opinion on matters of public controversy”, which covers a broad spectrum from ads for charities to political party campaigning.
A report in the Times (paywalled) reveals that animal rights group Animal Defenders International are challenging the law at the European Court of Human Rights, saying it breaches the freedom of expression guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights. A decision is due in the next few weeks.
Were the law to change, we would see an enormous shift in the way political campaigns are conducted. There would be a benefit to charitable organisations and campaign groups, who would be provided with a wider reach, as is the case with Animal Defenders International.
However, the negative implications could outweigh the positive were the law to change. Given the phenomenal cost of TV advertising, better-funded organisations will have a far greater ability to broadcast their messages than those with limited funding. This shift would bring the UK model for campaigning closer to that in the US, where the wealth of a political party plays a bigger role in the success of election campaigns, and well-funded single-issue groups have greater influence during elections.
Giving a greater voice to campaigns would be welcome, but lifting the ban on paid advertising for political campaigns may prove to drown out smaller campaigns while allowing the wealthy a larger platform. Far from democratising communication, this could increase the power of better-funded organisations at the expense of those who should best benefit from a change in the law.
A cap on donations to political parties could mitigate the effects of this somewhat; even the US has this safeguard, although their system is riddled with loopholes. If we are going to have paid advertising for political campaigns, we must level the playing field as much as possible.