A LEGAL move which would have resulted in political adverts being allowed on British television was narrowly thrown out by a European court yesterday.
Human rights judges in Strasbourg ruled 9-8 in a test case verdict that ministers refusal to allow Animal Defenders International (ADI) to screen a TV advert promoting animal rights did not breach the group’s rights to freedom of expression.
The blanket ban in the UK is designed to prevent a US-style political advertising free-for-all in which the richest have most access to promote their views.
Yesterday’s verdict rejected a complaint by the animal rights non-government organisation (NGO) that denying it the possibility to advertise on TV or radio breached the European Human Rights Convention, which guarantees free speech.
The ruling stated: “The court noted that both parties [ADI and the government] maintained that they were protecting the democratic process. It found, in particular, that the reviews of the ban by both parliamentary and judicial bodies had been exacting and pertinent, taking into account the European Court’s case law.”
The ban only applies to advertising and ADI has access to “alternative media”.
The ruling also pointed out there was a “lack of European consensus” on how to regulate paid political advertising in broadcasting – giving the UK government “more room for manoeuvre when deciding on such matters as restricting public interest debate”.
The verdict concluded: “Overall, the court found that the reasons given to justify the ban were convincing”.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller said: “Political adverts are – and have always been – banned on British TV and radio. That ban has wide support … and ensures the political views broadcast into our homes are not determined by those with the deepest pockets.”
The case was triggered by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre’s refusal in 2005 to allow UK-based ADI to run a TV advert juxtaposing images of a girl and then a chimpanzee in chains in an animal cage. The BACC said ADI’s objectives were political in nature, and such a broadcast would breach the 2003 Communications Act.
The High Court and the House of Lords agreed and ADI went to the Human Rights Court.
Yesterday’s ruling said the government and ADI had the same objective of “maintaining a free and pluralist debate on matters of public interest and, more generally, of contributing to the democratic process”.
The human rights question was whether the ban went too far in restricting the right to participate in public debate.
The balance was between the NGO’s right to impart information and ideas of general interest which the public was entitled to receive, and the authorities’ wish to “protect the democratic debate and process from distortion by powerful financial groups with advantageous access to influential media”.
The judges said they had taken account of the “complex” regulatory regime governing political broadcasting in the UK had been subjected to “exacting and pertinent” reviews and validated by both parliamentary and judicial bodies.
ADI chief executive Jan Creamer said: “This is a profoundly sad day for democracy It is unjust that companies can advertise without being challenged.”