Why the ASA does not regulate political advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is in the news today for two reasons – today is the day the ASA’s remit extends in the online world and it’s also in the news for (rightly) rejecting requests to rule on a controversial advert for May’s electoral reform referendum.

That its remit does not extend to such advertisements has come in for a fair amount of criticism and expressions of surprise, even though the ASA’s decision last century to pull out from such regulation was not really controversial at the time. Why then did it pull out?

A House of Commons Library briefing paper neatly summarises it:

Since 2000 political advertising in the non-broadcast media (i.e. newspapers, bill boards etc) that aims to influence voters in elections or referendums has been exempt from the “British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing”.

This exemption was made on the grounds that it was not appropriate for the ASA, as a non-elected body, to intervene in the democratic process, that ASA rulings would have little practical value because the complex issues involved meant that rulings would probably be made after election day, that judgements would inevitably be within the arena of political debate and that party political advertisements are always subject to a disproportionate amount of media scrutiny.


4 responses to “Why the ASA does not regulate political advertising”

  1. I disagree with your view that the ASA is right to not rule on political adverts. This means that a whole section of advertising is entirely unregulated, which is clearly undesirable. I don’t think that media scrutiny is enough – will a No2AV friendly newspaper be particularly likely to flag up flaws in the campaign literature? I’d imagine that plenty more people will see the advert than the refutal of it’s claims. In cases where election or referendum literature is knowingly false or exceedingly misleading and this could have reasonably been expected to have affected the outcome of the vote then surely it is right that the result be overturned and the vote re-run.

    I also don’t see the issue of a non-elected body to intervene in the democratic process in the context of fraud – the judiciary are a non-elected body and can intervene in the process in the case of fraud. An example here is Phil Woolas, there was even an example in the USA where the court ruled that a senator ruled to have committed electoral fraud was to give up his seat to his nearest rival. In any case, I don’t see how a fair democratic process can be carried out with much of the population being given false information on which to base their decision.

    Knowingly lying in an election campaign is, in my view, electoral fraud and should be dealt with accordingly.

  2. Guido pretty much hits the nail on the head – that, and the fact that the ASA couldn’t be bothered to do it (“Oh, it would just take too long” pretty much sums up their stance.)

    The ASA took the same approach with websites (broadly – “we can’t do it, it’s too difficult”) until it became obvious they had to.

    Essentially, without regulation, political adverts & leaflets can say pretty much what they like within certain legal boundaries. If there isn’t some form of regulation – even rules agreed between political parties and administered by the ASA – then eventually people will believe even less anything written in a political document than they do now.

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