We need a ‘No to ASA’ campaign
Calling on the Advertising Standards Authority to regulate political debate is both bizarre and illiberal.
‘How low will they go?’
So asked a recent email from the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign group, in reference to claims made by its opponents in the NO2AV camp. NO2AV had produced an advert encouraging people to reject the alternative vote system in the referendum on 5 May, by claiming that Britain can’t afford it. The advert featured a picture of a baby with the caption: ‘She needs a maternity unit, not an alternative voting system. Say “No” to spending £250million on AV.’
In posing a false dichotomy designed to provoke a fearful, emotional reaction amongst voters, rather than engaging in reasoned debate, it seems the answer to Yes to Fairer Votes’ question is that NO2AV can go pretty low.
‘This is not the debate that the country deserves’, argue pro-AV campaigners. They’re quite right. And yet, instead of taking the moral high ground and leading the way in engaging the public in a serious debate about electoral reform, the Yes lobby has instead asked an unelected, unaccountable organisation – the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – to offer guidance about what should appear in AV referendum adverts. Instead of challenging NO2AV’s propaganda in an upfront fashion, Yes campaigners want an external referee to get involved. It seems that the Yes camp can go pretty low, too.
According to Katie Ghose, chair of Yes to Fairer Votes, ‘an open, fair and honest debate’ on AV is ‘proving surprisingly elusive’. And the reason for this is apparently that the No campaigners don’t have ‘the decency and integrity to regulate themselves’. So the pro-AV lobby believes that the only solution is to call on the ASA ‘to step in today, so that we can get on with the debate the country deserves’, says Ghose. ‘We need the Advertising Standards Authority to issue guidance on this campaign, and fast.’
It is very revealing that the first response of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaigners to a strange NO2AV advert is not to appeal to the good sense of the public, but to the writ of the authorities. The Yes campaign seems to believe that winning the public debate against NO2AV’s cheap shots is impossible without the authorities stepping in to show NO2AV the political equivalent of a yellow card.
The implication of the Yes camp’s actions is that without guidance from the ASA on AV adverts, the vulnerable public will be so manipulated by the ‘lies’ of NO2AV that our judgement will become clouded and we will be unable to tell which side is right and which side is wrong. Such a view betrays a remarkable lack of trust in people’s ability to make up their minds on important issues. Do Yes campaigners really think that the public lacks the critical skills to be able to stand back from the NO2AV ads and weigh up the pros and cons of electoral reform? It seems so, given that they choose to place their faith not in the court of public opinion, but in the clique of 15 unelected men and women who form the ASA’s decision-making council.
Most strikingly of all, the Yes lobby is taking this action despite the fact that the ASA has already said it has no jurisdiction over political adverts and is not in a position to offer the guidance that is being called for. An ASA spokesman confirmed to spiked that even though Yes to Fairer Votes plans to deliver a petition with over 16,000 signatures on it, due to ‘freedom of speech considerations, [this is] something we would not be able to get involved in’.
So the pro-AV lobby has, bizarrely, been mobilising its members to petition an authority which has no jurisdiction or inclination to intervene in the matter of political speech, all in the name of ensuring that we have a ‘fair’ public debate on AV. Surely when even the ASA, one of the most censorious bodies in Britain, has to point out to you the importance of free speech in political debate, something has gone wrong with your campaign…?
The Yes camp doesn’t think so. Indeed, one of its prominent supporters has declared himself to be ‘shocked’ that ‘no one appears to have the authority to call out the [NO2AV] campaign’. He asks: ‘What if others decide to follow their lead in the future to smear political opponents? Who would regulate that? Is there nothing that could be done about it even if the claims were completely false?’ The small matter of trusting the public to work out what’s worth supporting and what isn’t, rather than calling for a Higher Power to set the terms of political debate, never seems to enter these campaigners’ minds.
In many ways, it is not surprising that a campaign group which believes that a technocratic fix to the electoral process will reinvigorate politics also turns to the authorities to lay down the rules on political debate. In both instances, in its belief in technocratic fixes and its desire to have the ASA rule on political speech, the Yes to AV campaign demonstrates that it has more faith in bureaucratic systems than it does in the demos.
Political untruths can be exposed without the need for an authority to issue a decree on what is True and what is False. The idea that without the guiding hand of the authorities political debate becomes ‘unfair’ betrays a disdain for the public’s skills of critical judgement. With its crude ad, NO2AV has indeed stooped pretty low. But with their evident contempt for the court of public opinion, the Yes campaigners have hit rock bottom.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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