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Monday, July 24, 2006

Getting political

There is some speculation today that if Animal Defenders International win their case to lift the ban on "political" advertising on radio and TV then Britain will rapidly sink into the sort of media frenzy we see in America, whereby political parties and pressure groups effectively buy elections through their purchase of airtime.

ADI argue that the ban is in breach of article 10 of the European convention and it seems that there is European case law to back up their submission:

ADI, a peaceful animal rights campaign group, was told it could not advertise on TV against the use of primates by commercial companies for advertising and in zoos. If the high court declares that the ban is incompatible with article 10 it would force the government to change the law sooner or later, though ministers could delay taking action and wait for ADI to take the case to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

The Strasbourg court is almost certain to agree that the ban should be lifted because it has already declared a similar proscription in Switzerland a breach of article 10 in a case brought by an animal rights group. Campaigning organisations can now advertise freely in most other European and Commonwealth countries. In a three-day hearing, Lord Justice Auld and Mr Justice Ouseley will take evidence from Amnesty and the RSPCA about their experiences of the ban and from academic experts about the impact of television and radio advertising.

Tamsin Allen of the solicitors Bindman & Partners, which represents ADI, said: "The current ban on political advertising means that even campaigning organisations with no connection to any political party may not use broadcast media to raise money or to campaign on issues. This leads to unfairness.

"BP are permitted to advertise their green credentials on TV but environmental organisations are not permitted to criticise the oil industry for its role in climate change in the same media. We are hopeful that the challenge will succeed and open the way for thousands of organisations to advertise on TV and radio and to benefit from the new developments in interactive TV."

Whether a successful challenge will open the door to advertising by political parties is another matter. It must be acknowledged however, that single issue campaigning is always aimed at changing the opinion of government. It does this by bringing political pressure to bear on Ministers and by enlisting support from the opposition. Thus, its impact is party political. In those circumstances it is inevitable that the Government will argue at some stage for a right to reply and the opposition parties will then demand their tenpennyworth.

From then on in it is a slippery slope: party political broadcasts will be obsolete and political spin doctors and agents will be seeking to buy airtime to get their message across. The sterile blame game of the House of Commons will invade our television and radio time, it will infiltrate the internet and we will have to spend more time talking to each other to avoid it all. Who would have thought that TV could stimulate the art of conversation in such a way?

Seriously, though the one issue of concern here relates not to the principle of political advertising but how the various parties will pay for it. America is notorious for the way that lobbyists and big business buy influence. American politicians devote a huge amount of their time to raising money to run their offices and to campaign for re-election. That is not something I want to see here.

We are already witnessing inquiries into allegations that people were rewarded for donations and loans with peerages. When the amount of money that a political party needs to raise to compete is doubled or tripled so as to pay for airtime then goodness only knows what will be on offer to meet difficult fundraising targets. If ADI win this case then the Government need to do some serious thinking about how they are going to respond to it and how they are going to tighten broadcasting and political funding regulations to prevent this sort of free-for-all.
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