Why not lift the ban on political TV advertising?

Why not lift the ban on political TV advertising?

    How can more people be persuaded to vote?

Tomorrow I’ve been invited to take part in a “power lunch” at the Adam Smith Institute at which at which pollsters, journalists and others with a keen interest in the election process will discuss with Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, ways of boosting voter turnout in UK elections.

And in thinking about the issue it struck me that the decline in turn-out is closely correlated to the emergence of digital television. Until the 1997 election it was very difficult for TV viewers to get away totally from politics during a campaign because the vast majority of people had only only four channels – and each of these was required to show party election broadcasts like the “Brown-Blair love-in” (above) which kicked off Labour’s campaign in April.

Now the plan is for analogue TV to be switched-off by 2012 and the vast majority of households already have access to a minimum of 30 channels – most of them supported by advertising. The days when the public enjoyed a “common TV experience” by watching the same programme at the same time have gone.

Right from the beginning of commercial TV fifty years ago in the UK political advertisements have been banned. The result is that UK elections are totally different from US ones where TV advertising totally dominates.

    What is the case for continuing the ban in the digital television era? Surely if we want to encourage more people to be interested in the political process then the full range of communication tools should be available to those who are seeking our votes?

The big argument against is the money – as we’ve seen in the campaign financing debates in the US. But the UK has now got a regime of much tougher reporting and transparency requirement on party funding as all three main parties have discovered in the past few months.

If we want to get the younger generation to be more interested in the political process then the parties should be able to reach them by being able to advertise on the TV channels that they watch. It would make for very different General Election campaigns.

I would be very interested in other ideas about how turnout can be increased so I can feed it in to tomorrow’s discussion.

Mike Smithson

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