European court upholds ban on paid political advertising

British and Irish law meet European human rights standard but at odds with US practice


A European Court of Human Rights ruling upholding a UK ban on paid political advertising will resonate in Ireland where similar rules apply.

The UK’s Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre had banned an animal rights group televising a campaign video on the grounds that it contravened the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits advertising if it is “on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature”.

Animal Defenders International (ADI), which created the ad as part a 2005 primate welfare campaign, disputed the finding and eventually brought the case to Europe after the High Court and the House of Lords refused to overturn the ruling. The group alleged the UK government had violated article 10 (freedom of expression).

But the government argued if the impartiality of the broadcast media was relaxed wealthy interests could wield unfair influence on the public.

Last week, the court decided the reasons offered by the authorities, to justify the prohibition were “relevant and sufficient”. It found, by a narrow majority of nine votes to eight, that the “prohibition cannot therefore be considered to amount to a disproportionate interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of expression”.

Dr Eoin O’Malley, a political scientist at DCU, said: “The whole point of our laws on this is to prevent the dominance of campaigns and public opinion by the most wealthy. Imagine the upcoming/ongoing debate on abortion; one can see that pro-life advocacy groups are quite wealthy and would be able to influence public opinion with often emotive advertising.”

He said if the ban had not been upheld there would be a move towards paid party advertising on television. “This would increase pressure on Irish parties to raise more money, which would have negative implications for public policy.”

The ruling also highlights the gulf between the European Court of Human Rights and the US Supreme Court’s standards on the freedom of expression.