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Why should we lift the ban on political advertising on UK TV

James Frayne – former Director of Communications at the Department for Education – argues that we should think again about paid-for political advertising on TV and radio in the UK.

I asked a British Cabinet Minister at a Portland event a few years ago whether he supported lifting the ban on political advertising on TV. “Absolutely not” was the reply. They had seen how the system worked in the US and it wasn’t something we wanted to see here. TV advertising lowered the tone of politics and encouraged negativity and hostility.

No surprises there. I can’t think of a single politician in the UK who has said anything different. I also struggle to think of more than a small number of British political operatives who think the ban should be lifted – and the number of operatives who think campaigns should actively prioritise lifting the ban is smaller still. I’m in that small minority.  I believe the ban should be lifted and that campaigns should make it happen.

I simply don’t buy the argument that the public will be scared or confused by ads. Contrary to what some in Westminster seem to think, people are intelligent and they can judge a good argument from a bad one. They don’t need every issue or every policy explained by journalists because they’re too thick to understand it themselves.  People might not have the time to follow every speech or read every policy paper but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the fundamentals of political life. They should get the chance to hear directly from candidates, parties and independent campaigns about issues that matter.

Also, crucially, one of politicians’ most important jobs is getting their message heard by the public.  And for many political operatives, this is their only job. How can they accept a situation where the single most effective way of speaking to the public – using self-designed and tested audio-visuals – is not an option? If you care about communicating with the public, it does not make sense.

The result is that politicians and their operatives have put themselves in a position where the media is left with almost total power to explain and define their policies to the electorate.  We have all heard conversations with political campaigners and politicians where they have moaned about the left wing bias of the BBC or the right wing bias of the tabloids. We might sympathise but if campaigns feel strongly, they have to do something about it and remove the filter.

We have created a system in the UK where, for all but a handful of weeks at the end of a Parliament, “campaigning” mainly consists of briefing stories to the media and getting the BBC to cover politicians on visits. In election campaigns both parties have reasonably extensive ground campaigns, but the top consultants tend to be focused on the media – which means briefing stories.

This system creates the “cosy” relationship that exists between politicians, operatives, and the media. Some seem shocked by the shared drinks, dinners, and concerts. But given the system – where securing positive media coverage is everything – what do we expect? In the US, while the cosy relationships do exist, they are nowhere near as important.  Campaigns in the US always know they can rely on TV ads to get the message out.

In the UK, we occasionally talk about TV ads in the US as if they are an interesting side show to a campaign approach which is otherwise vaguely similar. We can see them  as if they’re just there to provide light relief and entertainment. This is not the case. TV ads really matter to campaigns. The process of their funding, development, and ultimate placing affects the entire focus of a campaign. Other activities such as email campaigns, door-knocking, direct mail are important but TV dominates.

Fundamentally, campaigns recognise that people’s opinions on a candidate and an issue can be shifted by a great TV spot, particularly one that runs regularly and for a long period. And these ads really do run regularly. In every state, voters will likely see very significant numbers of ads in a given week. But in some states, particularly in cheaper media markets away from big cities like New York or Miami, they will be everywhere.

Contrary to what many in the UK believe, these ads are not a stream of negativity. Of course, some races will be negative and candidates will attack because they feel they have no choice because of their own poor record, or because of glaring opposition weaknesses. But many, many races will feature large numbers of positive ads which introduce candidates to an electorate, which explain how they have changed, or which boast of their record.

In any case, as I say above, people are intelligent and they know when an argument makes sense. They can spot a campaign which has nothing positive to say and only attacks. They can also spot a campaign that does not respond to attacks on them. They don’t need everything constantly explained to them by the media.

It is true the broadcasting environment in the UK is different to the US.  After all, we have the BBC, which doesn’t run advertising. There’s no doubt this would soften the impact of an introduction of TV ads. Even so, the change in culture would be significant and would be worth it. We would see campaigns start to think about voters first, not the media. That would mean more relevant and bolder messaging from politicians and it would also require a major fundraising drive from far more voters, increasing the link between campaigns and the public.

There would, of course, need to be decisions on the size and transparency of donations to campaigns but more money in politics, if policed sensibly, is not in itself bad. This, however, is a whole new debate.

James Frayne ran Portland’s Campaign Unit between 2007 and 2010 and was until recently the Director of Communications for the Department for Education. He will be re-launching his Campaign War Room blog shortly.