Medium is the political message


ANALYSIS:Should political advertising be allowed on radio and TV? A new report says it should – but with conditions, writes KEVIN RAFTER

WHEN ANNOUNCING plans for trade union protests against public sector pay cuts David Begg observed that television and radio would not be used to promote the campaign. This is because paid political advertising on television and radio is banned in Ireland. The ban applies to political parties and election candidates, and to organisations seeking to promote issues considered to be of a political nature.

The restrictive nature of the political advertising regime in Ireland has led to ongoing controversy. None of the main political parties has sought to advertise on television and radio, but contentious advertisements have arisen from book publishers, charities and trade unions. Some of these advertisements would – if they had been allowed – have promoted a book written by Gerry Adam, an anti-war movement concert to protest against the US invasion in Iraq and a Trócaire campaign to encourage the government to implement fully a United Nations resolution on gender equality.

The blanket ban has been reaffirmed in several pieces of broadcasting legislation approved by the Oireachtas over many years, including the new Broadcasting Act passed into law last July. It was surprising that the Oireachtas did not engage more fully with the status quo, given technological advances and recent European Court determinations that may leave the current regime open to legal challenge on freedom of expression grounds.

The ban in countries like Ireland and in the United Kingdom was conceived in a different era. The discrimination between print advertising (permitted) and broadcast advertising (banned) was justified due to the particular power of the broadcast medium.

But the internet has assumed an important role in political communications and has provided new ways of communicating political messages. Many political parties, candidates and interest groups are now using the internet to distribute advertising that cannot be placed on television stations. Only last month, the Conservatives in the UK because the first political party at Westminster to run a marketing campaign on internet music service Spotify to target younger votes.

In an era of media convergence between the various strands of broadcasting – television, radio and the internet – it does seem timely to review the blanket ban on political advertising on television and radio. To do otherwise would be to be locked in a policy and technological time warp.

New independent research funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and published today includes opinion poll evidence showing public resistance to a liberal political advertising regime – but, as the new research study argues, change does not mean movement towards such a system. The opinion poll data indicates a public willingness to accept modification to the current system provided certain limitations are put in place alongside a less restrictive environment for political advertising.

The research shows a significant difference in attitudes across age categories, with younger people more strongly in favour of liberalisation. Those in the 18-24 age group were more likely to favour a change to the status quo on broadcast political advertising. In this group, 48 per cent supported allowing political parties and interest groups to advertise subject to spending limitations. A similar number (48 per cent) in the 18-24 age group also favoured relaxation of the current regime subject to timing limitations during a campaign. The corresponding numbers in the 65+ age group were 38 per cent (money limitation) and 30 per cent (timing limitation).

Understandable concerns exist about movement towards so-called “American-style” politics where election campaigns are dominated by very heavy spending on broadcast political advertising with few restrictions on candidates or parties. But as the analysis of international political advertising systems clearly shows, the US is the exception. There are mixed views in the academic literature about the impact of political advertising on the quality of political debate, and about whether a relaxation of an advertising ban would enhance or diminish public discourse. In terms of a widely held view that equates political advertising with negativity, international comparative research suggests that the predominance of negativity is a peculiarly US phenomenon.

Political advertising works on a number of levels, including impact on voter knowledge and understanding of key issues; impact on voter ability to evaluate candidate positions; impact on voting decisions; and impact on voter participation. The results of international studies show that exposure to political advertisements encourages voters to seek out more information about candidates.

The recommendations in the new study were formulated in the context of technological change, judicial development and public opinion. The objective should be to see managed policy change at a national level rather than waiting for the European Court to force a response or for internet developments to render the current regime obsolete. The recommendations envisage a revised regime in which there is greater similarity in the regulatory treatment of political advertising on different broadcast platforms and an acceptance that political advertising has a role to play in democratic discourse.

The report suggests modifying the current regime so that political parties and other groups are given greater freedom to publicise their policies and agendas on television and radio. At a time when considerable concern has been expressed about the decline of public participation in the democratic process, and increased apathy towards the political system, it is not unreasonable to argue that all avenues to enhance the quality of democratic discourse should be explored.

Broadcast is the medium through which most people receive their political news. The current regime prevents access to the most powerful medium available.

Dr Kevin Rafter is head of the department of film and media at the National Film School, IADT. Political Advertising: the Regulatory Position and the Public View is published today by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

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