The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom

CHAPTER NINE

MEDIA AND ADVERTISING

9.1 The Neill Committee observed that the political parties spent large sums of money on advertising in the press, on posters and on the production of party political broadcasts and election broadcasts. Such spending was therefore an important element in the political 'arms race' which led to the Committee's proposals to limit election expenditure by parties. To reinforce the controls on election expenditure, the Committee made a number of related recommendations on political advertising in the broadcast and print media (R94 to R97).

Advertising in the broadcast media

9.2 The ban on paid political advertising on television and radio has been a major factor in limiting the amount of money political parties can spend on election campaigning and therefore on the amount they have to raise. As a result, the ban is supported across the political spectrum and the Government strongly endorses the Neill Committee's recommendation that it should be maintained (R94).

9.3 The Neill Committee further recommended that existing legislation should be reviewed to ensure that the ban on political advertising would apply equally to new communications media. The Government has recently published 'Regulating Communications : The Way Ahead'1. This sets out the results of the consultation on its Green Paper in Summer 1998 on the convergence of communications technologies2. The Government's view, endorsed by the great majority of those who responded to the consultation, is that most people will continue to rely for some time on traditional free-to-air television and radio broadcast services to meet their information and entertainment requirements.

9.4 The Government has set out in 'The Way Ahead' an evolutionary approach to the regulation of communications in the light of this assessment and will continue to keep the position under review as new services, and new delivery vehicles for those services such as the Internet, continue to emerge and gain acceptance. In doing so, the Government will be guided by the Electoral Commission which will have, as one of its statutory functions, responsibility for advising the Government on political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media (R97 and clause 5).

9.5 The Neill Committee further recommended that broadcasters should do all in their power to maintain their established tradition of strict political neutrality (R95). The Government endorses this view.

Party political broadcasts

9.6 Whilst political parties are prohibited from taking paid advertisements in the broadcast media, since 1924 they have been given free airtime for party election broadcasts and subsequently for party political broadcasts. The rules in respect of party political and election broadcasts are determined by the broadcasting regulators (the Independent Television Commission, Radio Authority, BBC and S4C) in consultation with the main political parties. These rules determine, in particular, which political parties are entitled to party political and election broadcasts and the length and frequency of such broadcasts. The Neill Committee proposed that the Electoral Commission should have a role in this process (R97 and paragraph 13.22 of the Committee's report). Clause 9 and paragraph 4 of Schedule 7 to the draft Bill provide that in drawing up rules in respect of party political (and election) broadcasts and referendum broadcasts, the broadcasting regulators must have regard to the views of the Electoral Commission. It would also be open to the Commission to comment on the application of the rules as part of its function of reporting on elections and referendums. The broadcasters' editorial responsibility for all broadcast material will remain unchanged.

Paid advertising

9.7 Paid advertising in the non-broadcast media raised a new issue for the Neill Committee that was not directly related to party funding, namely that of advertising standards. The Committee concluded that this was not an issue they could deal with in any detail in the context of their particular enquiry into the funding of political parties, but they did recommend that the political parties should seek to agree, in association with the advertising industry, a code of best practice for political advertising in the non-broadcast media (R96).

9.8 In evidence to the Neill Committee, the Committee of Advertising Practice3 expressed some disquiet over the fact that while political advertising came within the ambit of its Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion, it was specifically exempt from certain provisions of the codes, including those clauses that prohibited misleading advertisements and advertisements which made unfair comparisons or unfairly attacked or discredited other 'products'. In the view of the Committee of Advertising Practice this current "part in, part out" approach to political advertising was likely in the long term to bring advertising in general into disrepute with the public. In the absence of a consensus between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to bring political advertising wholly within the scope of the codes, the Committee of Advertising Practice has decided to exclude political advertising from its codes. The Committee plans to launch the new codes on 1 October 1999, and to bring into full effect the necessary change from 1 January 2000.

9.9 The Committee of Advertising Practice remains ready to assist in the development of a code of best practice which deals exclusively with political advertising, but is strongly of the view that it would not be appropriate for a body made up of representatives of the advertising industry to oversee the enforcement of such a code. The Electoral Commission has been canvassed as a possible alternative regulatory body. The Government, however, sees dangers in conferring such a role on the Electoral Commission. Adjudicating over complaints about political advertisements would inevitably draw the Electoral Commission into the party political arena in a way that could compromise its reputation for even-handedness and independence. The risk of this happening is particularly acute during the 'hothouse' atmosphere of a general election campaign. As a result, its position as a politically impartial body could be jeopardised to the detriment of its ability to carry out its general regulatory functions.

9.10 The Government will explore with the main political parties whether there is any other existing or ad hoc body which could possibly oversee a code of practice on political advertising. If a suitable organisation can be found which commands consensus, the Government will help the political parties to reach agreement on the adoption of such a code.

 


1 Published by the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Culture, Media and Sport, June 1999.

2 Regulating Communications : Approaching Convergence in the Information Age (Cm 4022, July 1998).

3 Neill Report, Volume 2, pages 223-230. The Committee of Advertising Practice is a self-regulatory body comprised of organisations representing the advertising, sales promotion and media businesses.


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Prepared 27 July 1999