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Party Political Broadcasts

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Williams. I want to start by saying a little about the history of party political broadcasts. The very first radio broadcast was as long ago as 1924, and we have had televised party political broadcasts since 1951, but in that time the format has hardly changed, and my argument today is that it is time for change. The combination of declining newspaper circulation and increased restriction on parties’ ability to raise and to spend funds means that we should take a fresh look at how we give them the opportunity through party political broadcasts to communicate directly with the electorate. It is time to value party political broadcasts more.

I shall say a little about why party political broadcasts matter, and emphasise that we all under-appreciate them. When I was press secretary to the then Leader of the Opposition some years ago, I attended the broadcasters liaison group, which was an annual get-together of the main political parties with the main broadcasters to discuss the format and some of the issues arising from party political broadcasts. The format followed a weary predictability, in that parties such as the Welsh nationalists and the Scottish nationalists complained to the broadcasters that they were not getting enough broadcasts, and the broadcasters complained to the main parties that they were too late delivering their broadcasts and films, thus causing all sorts of logistical problems. The main parties also complained that there was not enough flexibility in the system and that they were unable to get their message across as much as they would like.

Among politicos and those who are politically active, it is common to hear that no one watches party political broadcasts because they are old hat, no one is interested and no one cares, but the evidence does not bear that out. An Ofcom report in 2005 commissioned ICM polling, which found that party political broadcasts were second to broadcast news bulletins as the lead source of information for the public when deciding how they would vote. The importance of party political broadcasts to voters was higher than newspapers and radio, whether national or local, so it is important that we value them.

One hears from so-called communication experts in political parties that such broadcasts are old hat and that things have moved on with viral marketing and everything on the internet. The belief is that they are rather quaint and a relic of the past, but that is not true and the rise of the internet, certainly when it comes to politics, has been exaggerated. The internet has made an astounding breakthrough in shopping, social media and other aspects, but when people want political news, the traditional media undoubtedly remain the main source of information, particularly the broadcast news media.

As a result of our under-appreciation of party political broadcasts, a number of things have happened. The parties put less effort into their films. They tend to produce shorter broadcasts using more amateur, in-house camera teams, and production and finish have been in decline in recent years. Broadcasters have started to look for excuses to wind down their commitment to political broadcasts. The current Ofcom consultation recommends changing the time that parties have for broadcasts. At the moment, they have an option of 2 minutes 40 seconds, 3 minutes 40 seconds or 4 minutes 40 seconds, and a proposal on the table suggests that that should be standardised at 2 minutes.

It is worth noting that the UK probably has the most draconian laws and restrictions on political advertising in the democratic world, to the point of questioning whether that is compliant with article 10 of the European convention on human rights. I do not tend to pray in aid the European Court of Human Rights, or to suggest that we should follow its guidance on such matters, but we should reflect on the fact that there is a question mark about whether our approach is compliant and whether it might be open to future challenge. A report by the European Commission back in 2002 concluded that our current approach would probably stand up to a challenge in the ECHR, but only if we maintain a robust and free system for party political broadcasts.

Our newspaper industry is in decline. Some hon. Members will know that I have argued that we should have more credible, independent regulation of our newspapers and that that requires some form of statutory underpinning, but our press should be robust, and free to be one-sided, partial and heavily opinionated. I will always defend their right to hold strong opinions, but they have been in decline for many years and that decline may even be terminal. Their influence is certainly far less today than several years ago, and linked to that is the problem of increased restrictions on political parties, which face falling membership, making it harder for them to raise money. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 introduced caps on party political spending, and new measures to strengthen still further transparency of donations and to prevent foreign donations. Cross-party talks are taking place on taking those restrictions further and placing caps on the size of individual donations.

If party political broadcasts are under-appreciated, political parties certainly are. No democracy can work without political parties making their case and having robust argument with one another. Some of the restrictions that we are introducing are right, but we must accept that they restrict political parties’ ability to communicate directly with the electorate, and leave more power than ever with the broadcasters. A duty of impartiality is enshrined in legislation, but the legal framework under which they operate creates a particular character of journalism. They are required to balance both sides, so they often come up with anodyne reports that do not help the public to reach an opinion.

There is always an emphasis on the two-way with the political correspondent, so a party leader who has just given a speech may be given 12 to 18 seconds to explain what they are trying to do, so that there will be plenty of time for a one-minute or two-minute two-way with the correspondent when they try to put a gloss on what the party leader is supposedly saying. That has led to over-emphasis on process and political strategy instead of giving politicians credit for doing what they do most of the time—saying what they believe. When I worked for the then Leader of the Opposition, I lost count of the number of times that he gave a speech about something he strongly believed, only to see it interpreted as a pitch to women voters or to the youth vote, or trying to appease core voters. It was always interpreted through the prism of political strategy, which undermines public trust in the political process, unnecessarily in my view.

A further problem with too-powerful broadcasting media is a tendency to have hostile interviews with a duel between the interviewer and the politician, because the programme’s objective is to make the politician look evasive and on the back foot. Programme formats are often designed to do that, whether or not that is the case. For all those reasons, we need to reform the system.

As I said, at the moment the larger parties typically are given three party election broadcasts during an election period. They have a choice between 2 minutes 40 seconds, 3 minutes 40 seconds, and 4 minutes 40 seconds. I think we should take a fundamental look at that, because the big problem with the current system of party election broadcasts is the lack of frequency. Somebody might see two Labour party political broadcasts but no Conservative broadcasts, or they might see two Conservative ones and none by Labour. We should look to increase their frequency but have shorter party broadcasts.

Rather than having three broadcasts of up to say, 4 minutes 40 seconds, my proposal is that instead we have a total of 12 minutes that can be used in a more flexible range of ways. They could be anything as short as one minute, so potentially, there could be up to 12 broadcasts of one minute, or there could be a mixture of long and short broadcasts. That would introduce flexibility, and the advantage is that public engagement and the chances that the public would see those broadcasts would be increased. It would also increase the chances of people staying tuned in long enough for them to receive the message.

I first proposed that idea at the broadcasters liaison group, way back in 2006. I have to say that at that point there was a “sucking on teeth” moment, as it was explained to me that we could not possibly have US-style political advertising here in Britain. That was an absolute no-no. We must never go down that route. However, I think it is time for us to challenge that lazy assumption, because as I said, we have laws in that area that are more draconian than in perhaps any other democracy in the world. We have an extraordinary situation where it is now okay to have advertising for toys to children at 6.30 or 7 o’clock in the morning while their unsuspecting parents are in bed, but we cannot possibly tolerate the thought of advertising political ideas to grown adults.

We need to challenge that idea and understand that the real objection to US-style political advertising is not the adverts’ length, but the fact that they are paid-for adverts, which means that money buys access to television and that it therefore buys power. That is not what my proposal envisages at all. There would be equal, equitable access to broadcasting time, calculated along similar lines to what we already have in the UK. Access would not be paid for, so a wealthy individual or a wealthy party would not be allowed to buy more airtime than any other.

The second thing to bear in mind is that with our party election broadcasts, we already have a number of rules that would prevent broadcasts, even if they were shorter, from going the route of US-style advertising. The most important rule is that a politician from another party, or footage of them, is not allowed to be used in a broadcast without their prior consent. In practice, that means that video footage of a politician’s opponents cannot be used in broadcasts, which means, for instance, that the Clinton attack on George Bush senior—the famous “Read my lips” advert that they ran—would not be allowed in the UK. It also means that the flip-flop windsurfing advert that was used so effectively against John Kerry by the Republicans in 2004 would not be allowed here in the UK. We have different rules, which would prevent advertising becoming like it is in the US.

Finally, we have to understand that there is a cultural difference in any event. When we look at the way American politics is debated, it can seem to us somewhat crass and somewhat brash, and it would not work here in this country. We would end up with a shorter type of broadcast that would fit our political culture. It is not inevitable that it would go the route of the US. Before we get too high-minded about it, it is also worth noting that many Americans tune in to watch Prime Minister’s questions each week for pure entertainment value, because they cannot believe that we tolerate something quite so hostile and aggressive on our Prime Minister.

In conclusion, I want to add that although people talk about this matter through the prism of what happens in the US, we should also remember what happens in the rest of the world. Australia, which has a similar parliamentary democracy to us, has a hybrid system: it has political broadcasts, but political advertising is also allowed. That is counterbalanced by a cooling-off period, so that in the final three days of an election, there is no political advertising at all. Barbados, which is small, but another Commonwealth country, has a system similar to what I outlined. The two main parties are given some 45 minutes of airtime, but there is more flexibility about how that time can be used. Ireland has a similar system of party election broadcasts to ours, and it frequently has broadcasts that are as short as one minute, which does not cause problems there. It is also worth remembering that in the rest of the EU, the new members and democracies in eastern Europe—countries such as Poland, Estonia and Finland—allow political advertising, and quite often that is completely unrestricted.

It is time for us to take a second look at this issue. If we were to reform this area, we could find a new way of allowing political parties to communicate directly with the electorate. If we got it right, it could be an alternative to the state funding of political parties, which, as we all know, the public have no appetite for.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Williams. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for securing this important debate on a topic that I know he has been raising for some time. He provides the House today with an opportunity to discuss the important subject of party political broadcasting. As he has shown convincingly, such broadcasts are one of the most important democratic tools that we have available to us in the United Kingdom, so they are worthy of serious consideration in the House.

We as a Government recognise that party political broadcasts, in which I include party election broadcasts, are an important part of a healthy democratic society. Having guaranteed access for political parties to television and radio from time to time provides the opportunity for the main political parties to share their policies, explain their views and engage fully with the electorate—without the gloss of a BBC political editor overlaid on top, as my hon. Friend hinted. It allows viewers to consider complex issues that may not be even covered in the news, and, crucially, it does so in the context of a system that is fair and balanced. In addition, at the time of elections, the parties are better able to set out their agenda to the whole electorate for public debate. Access to that information is vital when people are making important democratic decisions, whether in general, local or European elections.

It is absolutely right that from time to time we carefully consider the rules surrounding party political broadcasts. As my hon. Friend probably does not need to be reminded, the Communications Act 2003 requires licensed public service television broadcasters and the national analogue commercial stations to include party political broadcasts and referendum campaign broadcasts in their programming, in accordance with rules determined by Ofcom, the independent media regulator. Other channels such as Sky are not under such an obligation, but party political broadcasts are shown voluntarily on Sky’s news channel. As the BBC is, of course, outwith that general regulation, there is a separate agreement between the Government and the BBC that places a formal obligation to include party political broadcasts and specifies that the regulation of that should be a matter for the BBC Trust.

Although my hon. Friend was correct to point out that certain parts of the media are under pressure, he will be aware of the new opportunity for all elected representatives to get our message across in the long-awaited advent of local television. Local television licences are, even as we speak, being awarded across the UK by Ofcom. The latest licences for Glasgow and Edinburgh have just been awarded, and I am looking forward to hearing who will be the successful bidder for the London licence later this year.

To return to the subject in hand, Ofcom’s guidelines on party political broadcasts set out the framework in which broadcasters must decide the allocation and scheduling of broadcasts. It is of course a matter for political parties to decide the length of broadcasts, but my hon. Friend is right that they are limited to certain lengths—two minutes and 40 seconds, three minutes and 40 seconds, or four minutes and 40 seconds. The BBC Trust and the Welsh authority apply similar rules to BBC services and to S4C. I note what my hon. Friend said about the Ofcom consultation suggesting a one-size-fits-all two-minute length for a party political broadcast. He made a persuasive case for allowing political parties the right to choose flexible lengths for their political broadcasts, depending on when they would be aired.

Let me state clearly who qualifies for party political broadcasts, because that is an important part of this debate. It is only the major parties: in Great Britain, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats; in Scotland and Wales respectively, depending on one’s point of view, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru also qualify; and of course in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists. However, smaller parties can also be represented in party political broadcasts if they are registered with the Electoral Commission and contesting one sixth or more of the seats up for election. Of course, that has to be modified where a proportional representation system is in place.

There are additional rules about the qualification of parties in the different nations of the UK and how they qualify for broadcasts on Channels 4 and Five and on national commercial radio; and of course there are different rules relating to a referendum, European parliamentary elections, Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Greater London authority and local elections, and other key events. There is a plethora of rules, Mr Williams, and I know that you will breathe a sigh of relief when I tell you that I will not go through them. I simply refer you to Ofcom’s website, if you want to catch up on them later in the day.

Within the terms of the rules, the precise allocation of broadcasts is the responsibility of the broadcasters. Any unresolved disputes relating to the length, frequency, allocation or scheduling of broadcasts can be referred either by the political party or by the broadcaster to Ofcom.

I think that we in the House all accept that party political broadcasting should be regulated, because we want to ensure that party political broadcasts are fair and that different political parties are represented proportionately and appropriately. It is certainly still the Government’s view that the combination of the statutory framework, Ofcom’s rules and the voluntary arrangements of broadcasters achieves that, but that is not to say that we are opposed to any change or evolution in this area. In fact, we welcome discussion.

As I said, Ofcom draws up guidelines for party political broadcasts, and it reviews them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth pointed out, Ofcom is undertaking a review of several aspects of the guidelines, partly to take local television into account, but also to take into account the newly elected police and crime commissioners and the impact that their elections might have on future political broadcasts. Today’s debate is therefore an excellent opportunity to raise issues, and my hon. Friend has done exactly that. I should make all Members who are participating in this debate aware that the consultation closes on 21 January. I hope that if hon. Members want to make representations to that consultation, they will do so.

Some may disagree, but my view is that, in relation to the current system, we do not want to risk undermining the important principle of impartiality on British television and radio. That is what television viewers and radio listeners have come to expect. They can be sure that what they see and hear on television and radio is balanced, fair and impartial. That is different from the situation with newspapers, but, again, people who read newspapers will broadly understand the political slant or stance of the particular newspaper that they choose to buy.

I completely agree. If I gave the impression that I was arguing for broadcasters to be able to become partial, I would like to make it clear that I was not. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need a range of different sources of information for the public? Yes, we need tough broadcast news bulletins that will ask the searching, difficult questions, but for all the reasons outlined, we also need to create better opportunities for political parties to articulate their agenda and their message, in their own terms, directly to the voters.

I am sorry if I gave the impression that I had got the impression from my hon. Friend that he did not think that news media should be impartial. That certainly was not the impression that I wished to give, but I do hear what he says and I think that that goes to the central thrust of his argument, which is that the current rules, to a certain extent, are archaic and that there should be more flexibility and innovation in the opportunities given to political parties. However, I stress that that is his argument; I will continue to hold the line in the rest of my speech.

I am sure that hon. Members recognise that Ofcom has developed the existing rules to ensure that the system remains workable, but it does take into account a number of considerations, which include ensuring that the public can clearly tell that they are watching a party political broadcast rather than a television programme or an advert. It is important to maintain that distinction.

We also have a long-standing ban on political advertising in the UK. That is an interesting issue and worthy of debate. I happen to believe that we should continue the ban on political advertising. I heard what my hon. Friend said about the stance of the European Court of Human Rights, but we need only look across the pond at the United States. I certainly feel that the ban in the UK gains a lot of credibility from watching what happens in the United States, where vast amounts of money are spent and targeted on hapless voters, particularly in key swing states, who see nothing but blanket political advertisements.

What is my hon. Friend’s objection to political advertising? Is it the same as mine, which is that paid-for political advertising gives an advantage to those with money, or is it that he believes that advertising per se is somehow an evil, wrong thing to do?

I hate to think that I might have given my hon. Friend the impression that I think that advertising is a hateful practice. I am the Minister responsible for the advertising industry and I go out of my way to praise the UK advertising industry as world-beating. It is probably the best advertising industry in the world and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country, so I certainly would not want to give that impression. No, my objection to political advertising is similar to my hon. Friend’s, which is that it gives an advantage to political parties that have deeper pockets than their opponents. It is also somewhat of a cultural objection: to a certain extent, politics in this country is still conducted on a relatively civilised basis, and I wonder whether political advertising might undermine that. However, this is becoming a debate about political advertising when it should be a debate about party political broadcasting.

We are undertaking a communications review, but as I have made clear, we are not contemplating radical change. Given the clear views expressed by my hon. Friend today, I hope that he will respond to the Ofcom consultation, as he has some interesting proposals. However, as I said, I think it is right and proper that we have our present system; it is right and proper that people engage with it and suggest certain changes that they may wish to see; and it is right and proper that an independent regulator oversees that debate and makes recommendations based on the consultation that it is currently undertaking.

Sitting suspended.