Shabnum Mustapha: How to keep politics decent and truthful

NEXT week will be the sixth time Scots will have gone to the polls since 2014. It almost feels like we are spending more time in the polling booth than with family.

Even Tian Tian the panda can be used to mislead. Picture: Neil Hanna

With all the elections we’ve gone through there are inevitably claims and counter claims made which voters can often find confusing when it comes to who to trust. Some of the claims made during last year’s EU referendum campaign are still being talked about today which shows the impact political ads can have long after the shelf life of the campaign.

While such ads have undeniably caused a stir, there is a misperception that they fall within the scope of the Advertising Standards Authority and our powers to rule against irresponsible ads.

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Political ads are banned from being broadcast on TV under the Communications Act 2003. Instead, parties are given airtime through party political broadcasts which aren’t classed as advertising. Meanwhile, political ads in non-broadcast media, such as posters, newspapers and social media platforms, whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional and national elections or referendums, are actually exempt from the UK’s Advertising Code, which is the body of rules enforced by the ASA.

This is only a fairly recent situation, since until 1999, non-broadcast political advertising during elections was subject to some rules in the Advertising Code, for instance on denigration and offence. However, following the 1997 General Election, the Committees of Advertising Practice – the body that writes and maintains the UK Advertising Code, made a decision to exclude political advertising from the ASA’s remit for a range of principled and practical reasons.

The main reason was about the short, fixed timeframes over which elections run and the likelihood that complaints subject to ASA investigation would be ruled upon after an election had taken place. As a regulator subject to judicial review, we need to look at every complaint very carefully and it would not be fair to the advertiser (the political party or designated campaign group) if we rushed to potentially ban an ad during the few weeks of an official election campaign. Advertisers and complainants need to feel confident that a proper investigation has taken place before a ruling.

Even more crucially, there was a lack of consensus between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on whether to bring political advertising wholly within the scope of the code, which played its part in CAP taking the decision to exclude all of it.

In 1998, the ASA referred the matter to the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life which recommended that political parties should establish a code of best practice in partnership with the advertising industry. The report was presented to parliament in July 1999. The situation has remained unchanged since that time.

In contrast, political ads whose principal purpose is something other than to influence voters in an election or referendum do fall within the remit of the ASA. For example, in 2012 we banned a Scottish Government ad celebrating the links between Scotland and China as the pandas were arriving at Edinburgh Zoo on the grounds of being misleading. The ad claimed the pandas were a “gift” when in fact a substantial payment was involved from the charity that owns the zoo. While in 2013, we banned the Home Office “Go Home” ad, aimed at illegal migrants, for using misleading statistics on arrests.

Of course, we still get complaints about political advertising during elections – including 350 during the Brexit campaign – which shows that there is some concern about some of the claims in the ads.

Ultimately, candidates, political parties and campaigners are responsible for the messages they use to persuade and influence voters, and it’s important for them to explain and justify to voters how they have used factual information or claims in their campaign material.

The best course of action for anyone with concerns about a political ad is to contact the party responsible and exercise your democratic right to tell them what you think.

• Shabnum Mustapha is Media and Public Affairs Manager at the Advertising Standards Authority