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Purdah Mysteries: The absurdity of UK election PR law

Posted by Benedict Sycamore on 1st April 2015

Parliament dissolved on 30th March 2015, and the start of the pre-election period known as ‘Purdah’ began in the UK. This was also the day I attended an expert panel debate on PR in the 2015 General Election, chaired by Trevor Morris, Professor of Public Relations at the University of Richmond.

The panel comprised a handful of heavyweight PR politicos who discussed several topics, ranging from the communications challenges that particular political parties and their leaders face this year, to the limitations of polling and measurement.

Amongst the panel was Sir Chris Powell, Labour’s advertising advisor for three decades. He highlighted a fact that struck me as the most absurd thing about the 2015 UK General Election:

It has always been illegal for political advertisements to be shown on television.

At first it almost makes sense; paid political advertising would simply mean political parties with the deepest pocket can secure the most airtime. Talk of lifting the ban always sparks fierce debate, with advocates of the restrictions claiming an irrevocable change in the political landscape of Britain, and not for the better, as a result.

The sheer absurdity of the law hits me two-fold. As a member of the public, I find the law to be more condescending than conscientious. As a PR professional and a digital native, I find its efforts to be entirely futile.

Firstly, the alternative to political advertisements on British television is the infamous ‘party political broadcast’. Not only are these highlighted in the TV schedule, but just to ensure the wool isn’t pulled over the eyes of the unsuspecting and naïve British public, each one aired states that it is, in fact, a ‘party political broadcast’.

Advertisements deliver a very clear message. I don’t need a disclaimer at the start of a Peugeot advert to tell me Peugeot paid for it to be produced and aired, and that its purpose is to convince me to buy a Peugeot. The very nature of advertising means I’m able to draw this conclusion whether it’s an advertisement for a car, a chocolate bar or even a political group.

On the other hand, PR is capable of delivering the same message in a much more complicated manner – and through a multitude of channels. It was discussed during the panel debate that newspapers, rather than TV, are where most people prefer to source their information on national politics. As The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade puts it,

“The newspapers’ daily drip-drip-drip of stories and commentaries – whether positive or negative – do influence the electorate, including those people who never read the papers. The repetition, and the influence over other media, are the key to creating a broad consensus.”

Most newspapers have a distinct bias, and clearly don’t represent any level of impartiality. That’s absolutely fine and only becomes problematic when it’s presented as news, rather than an advertisement explicitly serving the interests of a particular political group.

If the purpose of banning political advertising on television is to keep a level playing field, then why aren’t similar efforts made to ensure fair-play in a medium that’s more important to shaping the political landscape than any other?

What about social media? Even though some politicians might need to sharpen up on their social media do’s-and-don’ts, we can look to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to see the power of turning the tide that social media has to offer election campaigns. The use of peer-to-peer influence through Twitter turned a foothold over Obama’s opponent into landslide victory. Delivering a message this way is often ten times more effective than simply broadcasting it on national television, so why hasn’t the UK imposed a ban on paid content on sites like YouTube, or Twitter?

It’s evident that the way the public consumes media has gone through an extreme transformation over the last decade. It will continue to do so as technology changes how institutions communicate with the public, and how we communicate with each other. It’s the responsibility of legislators and lawmakers to reflect this.

photo credit: El Parlamento

Benedict Sycamore