I promised in an earlier post that I would look again at Kevin Rafter’s recent report on Political Advertising: The Regulatory Position & the Public View (here), the research for which was funded under the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Media Research Scheme.
In Ireland, political advertising is banned in the broadcast media, but there are no similar restrictions upon the non-broadcast media, such the press, billboards, and so on, though a system of party political broadcasts during election and referendum campaigns is intended to mitigate the harshness of the broadcast advertising ban.
This distinction between broadcast and print media is often justified by the particular power of the broadcast medium. However, a local ban takes little account of developments in broadcasting (cable, satellite and digital channels) and telecommunications (the internet, mobile devices), and radio and television have nothing like the reach and impact that they had even a generation ago.
The main justification for the broadcasting ban lies in the fear that signficant resources would unfairly distort the political marketplace in favour of larger parties and major candidates with deep pockets and against the interests of smaller parties and minor candidates lacking in similar resources. As Barrington J put it in the Supreme Court put it Murphy v IRTC  1 IR 26, the Oireachtas is entitled to consider that “in relation to matters of such sensitivity, rich men should not be able to buy access to the airwaves to the detriment of their poorer rivals”. However, this concern is easy to overstate: as a reason for a restriction upon speech, it may justify regulations – even strict regulations – controlling political advertising, but it hardly supports an outright ban. It is unsurprising therefore that twocases in the European Court of Human Rights and another in the High Court of Australia have struck down such bans as incompatible with freedom of expression.
This is the background to Rafter’s report. He looks at political advertising regimes in many other jurisdictions, spaning a spectrum from the UK (whose regime is similar to ours in Ireland), through various intermediate positions in other European coutries (in increasing order of liberalisation: France, Germany, the Baltic states, the Scandanvian states) to the US (where, for free speech reasons, there is no regulation of political advertising, and only partial tolerance of campaign finance regulation). This is summarized in an interesting table (on p13) locating Ireland in a list of 29 countries.
Rafter then examines some of the controversial applications of the ban, including the banning of an advertisments by – an anti-abortion campaign group (a ban which the High Court upheld), the publishers of the autobiography of a controversial politician, a group promoting an anti-war concert, a national agency pressing for legislative change to benefit consumers, and a charity campaigning against gender inequality in third world. He concludes that the “implementation of the legislative ban on political advertising in Ireland has resulted in a lack of equality in the treatment of different groups” (p17 – query: does this raise constitutional equality concerns?). Moreover, comparing these examples with cases in which similar bans have been struck down, he confidently asserts “an increasing body of European Court case law … points to a fundamental problem with the blanket ban on political advertising in the context of the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights” (pp20-21). For what it’s worth, I entirely agree.
As part of the research, Rafter commissioned an opinion poll on the issue, and the results are a very important aspect of the Report. Almost half of respondents opposed changing the current regime; but there was a significant difference in attitude across age categories with younger people more strongly in favour of liberalisation; and people are more open to change if limitations on spending or on the broadcast period accompany any liberalisation. On the other hand, forty percent believed the status quo is an infringement on the freedom of expression of organisations covered by the ban; and there was strong support for the idea that the rules governing party political broadcasts should be determined by an independent body. This is a far from monolithic response, and demonstrates that the current inflexible regime is out of touch with public opinion.
For all of these reasons, Rafter proposes significant changes to the ban on political advertising (as well as to the party political broadcast system). His recommendations include:
Political parties and other groups should be given greater freedom to publicise their policies and agendas on television and radio. This change should be implemented in the context of providing non- political parties with access to political advertising opportunities while expanding the Party Political Broadcast system for registered political parties.
Broadcast advertising by interest groups other than political parties should be permitted outside election and referendum campaigns subject to defined rules …
The public will need reassurance that the system ensures those with access to resources do not disprortionately benefit under a new regime.
This should be done immediately, if not sooner; but I’m not going to hold my breath that this will happen any time soon. And the first Irish paid-for political advertisement is looking more remote by the day.