Massaging the political advertising ban

Cover of McLuhan and Fiore's 'The Medium is the Massage' via PenguinSection 41(3) of the new Broadcasting Act, 2009 (pdf) provides:

A broadcaster shall not broadcast an advertisement which is directed towards a political end or which has any relation to an industrial dispute.

This sub-section (in conjunction with section 41(4), which contains a ban on religious advertising) reenacts longstanding bans on political (and religious) advertising; though such a ban is unlikely to survive challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr Kevin Rafter, Head of the Department of Film and Media, in the School of Creative Arts, at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology has just written a fascinating report on Political Advertising: The regulatory Position and the Public View (here) for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). I’m glad to see this for at least two reasons.

First, it means that the BAI has hit the ground running. In October, the Minister announced five members of the Authority; according to section 13(7) of the Act, the quorum for meetings of the authority is five, so it has been operational since these five members were appointed by the Minister. However, the full membership is nine, and the other four members are being appointed by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Second, the report has returned an important issue to public debate. The responses have been interesting. The BAI press release headline emphasised that the independent report confirms majority support for the retention of prohibitions on political advertising in Ireland, whilst the Irish Times headline emphasised that the report is a call to relax the ban on political ads for TV and radio, and RTÉ’s headline emphasises that the report points out that the ban on political adverts could be challenged. Writing in the Irish Times in advance of yesterday’s publication of the report, echoing Marshall McLuhan in the headline, Rafter wrote:

Medium is the political message

… The restrictive nature of the political advertising regime in Ireland has led to ongoing controversy. … 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. …

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. …

This is a very welcome publication, and I will return to it in my next post. The BAI are to be commended for supporting the research that led to the report; and Rafter is to be commended for writing such a subtle, balanced and compelling assessment; now, to complete the trinity, let us up that the government can soon be commended for amending the legislation accordingly.