George Eustice is MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.
I am no fan of the
ECHR and would abolish the Human Rights Act, so I think it is right that
decisions about where to allow political advertising in Britain should be a
matter for our own national Parliament. However, those of us who no
longer want to contract out decisions affecting people's rights to foreign
courts must ensure that our own Parliament engages fully in such debates.
The case brought by Animal Defenders International has highlighted the woeful
inadequacy of our current laws on broadcast political advertising.
Britain has some of
the most draconian restrictions on political advertising in
the free world. It is not just the U.S which is usually cited. Most
other European countries allow some political advertising with the new
democracies in central and eastern Europe generally being the most
liberal. Commonwealth countries such as Australia with the same political
constitution as us also allow political advertising subject to certain
limits. In stark contrast, in Britain it is ok to advertise toys to young
children at 6.30 am while their parents are still in bed – but advertising
political ideas to grown adults is considered beyond the pale. It’s time
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the
Communications Act 2003 that followed represented an opportunity to revisit the
approach we take to broadcast advertising but it was an opportunity squandered.
Once we had introduced strict limits on party spending, introduced longer terms
for election periods and banned foreign donations altogether then the arguments
against political advertising became largely redundant. The current position
in the UK is something of an anomaly. The original principle predates the
internet to start with which will drive future change. We have also
always allowed political advertising in cinemas. Ten years ago, the no
campaign against the euro spent over £1 million on a powerful advert seen by
some 5 million cinema goers.
Many make the lazy assertion that they don't want US style attack ads.
Leaving aside the fact that the US system can lead to more energetic debate,
political advertising in Britain need not have an American accent. We
would have political adverts that fitted our own political culture. We
already have rules which prevent political parties using footage of their
opponents in Party Broadcasts. The "read my lips" attack on
George Bush snr and the "flip flop" attack on John Kerry would both
have been banned under rules the UK already has in place for Party Political
Others say that allowing political advertising would favour those with deep
pockets but since the PPERA all parties have their spending strictly limited
anyway. Furthermore, that is not a principled objection, it is simply a
matter of detail. If people want to introduce a separate limit on the
amount any organisation can spend specifically on broadcast advertising, then that
is easily done.
I have argued that we could make a good start by modernising our system of
Party Political Broadcasts. Rather than allowing each main party just
three broadcasts of 4 minutes 40, why not allow them to have a fifteen minute
time allocation in an election period that can be used up in more frequent but
shorter broadcasts of 1 minute. That way you would increase the chance of
voters seeing broadcasts and make it more likely they will stay tuned until the
end but they would still be long enough to feel distinct from a standard 30
second advert. Furthermore access to broadcasts would be free and
allocated in the same way as now.
We all know that many people in our society regard "politics" as a
dirty word but those of us who choose to become active in politics do so
because we know that you cannot have democracy without it nor without the cut
and thrust of political argument. We should not seek to stifle
debate. If parliament had done its job properly when the PPERA was introduced,
Animal Defenders International might never have had to bring a case before the
European Court. At the very least, this case should prompt a review of
our antiquated laws on political advertising.