Helpnote – Political Advertising

The Communications Act 2003 strictly prohibits political advertising. The main concern is that, were political advertising permitted, democratic processes would be distorted by whoever could afford the spots.

This help note seeks to clarify the way in which the legal prohibition is implemented via BCAP Code rules, based on Radiocentre’s experience.

It is a requirement of the BCAP Code that any ad that might be found to be political be cleared centrally by Radiocentre. Although it would be unlawful for an MP to place an ad promoting their political record, it is lawful for a council, for example, to place an ad alerting listeners to forthcoming changes in the way that benefits are being calculated. However, there may well be pitfalls in the latter, and sometimes it is not very clear whether or not an ad is prohibited by the Code.

What makes an ad political and therefore unacceptable?
An ad is ruled to be political depending on:

  • who is placing the ad, or
  • what is being stated in the ad.

It is possible for an ad to be placed by a neutral body, such as the administrative wing of a council, that inadvertently promotes a particular policy or view that is, in itself, a matter of public controversy which would not be acceptable.
Rule 7.2.1 states:

An advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is:
a) an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature;
b) an advertisement which is directed towards a political end; or
c) an advertisement which has a connection with an industrial dispute.
Examples of these would include:
a) a political party placing an ad as part of a membership drive;
b) a lobbying group placing an ad to sway listeners opinions on a controversial issue;
c) a union setting out reasons for its forthcoming industrial action.

Rule 7.2.2 goes into further detail as to exactly what a political end is:

For the purposes of this section objects of a political nature and political ends include each of the following:
a) influencing the outcome of elections or referendums, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere;
b) bringing about changes of the law in the whole or a part of the United Kingdom or elsewhere, or otherwise influencing the legislative process in any country or territory
c) influencing the policies or decisions of local, regional or national governments, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere
d) influencing the policies or decisions of persons on whom public functions are conferred by or under the law of the United Kingdom or of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom;
e) influencing the policies or decisions of persons on whom functions are conferred by or under international agreements;
f) influencing public opinion on a matter which, in the United Kingdom, is a matter of public controversy;
g) promoting the interests of a party or other group of persons organised, in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, for political ends.

Note that this would include, amongst others, ads for:

  • charities seeking to change the policies of foreign governments;
  • councils promoting their favoured outcome in a forthcoming referendum;
  • a group of parents pushing for the installation of speed bumps in roads surrounding a primary school;
  • an organisation seeking listeners’ experiences of violent crime in order to lobby for changes to the law;
  • companies tendering for government business.

What can be advertised?
Rule 7.2.3 outlines what sort of ads can be run that have links to politics.

Provision included by virtue of this section in standards set under section 319 [of the Act] is not to apply to, or to be construed as prohibiting the inclusion in a programme service of:
(a) an advertisement of a public service nature inserted by, or on behalf of, a government department; or
(b) a party political or referendum campaign broadcast the inclusion of which is required by a condition imposed under section 333 [of the Act] or by paragraph 18 of Schedule 12 to the Act.

So adverts can be placed by councils to notify listeners of road closures, new recycling schemes, country shows, etc. Because such things are the product of government or council policy, however, ads must not focus on the positive merits or otherwise of these policies where they are likely to represent “public controversy” (see political end (f) above) because this could influence public opinion. The ads must be couched in factual, impartial language only.
The inclusion of party political broadcasts is governed by Ofcom and falls outside of Radiocentre’s remit.

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