Open the airwaves and let the tub-thumpers pay for it

At the Edinburgh Television Festival, Peter Bazalgette called for legalising of political television advertising. Here's why
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The Independent Culture
BANAL, TENDENTIOUS, shallow, ludicrous, naive, tedious, predictable, laughable - and that's being kind. No one, not even politicians, could claim to enjoy party political broadcasts.

Is there no other way of allowing the Windbags, Tub Thumpers and Allied Operatives access to the airwaves? There is. It's called advertising.

Politicians are able to advertise in newspapers and on billboards. Strange, you may think, that they are unable to do so on radio and television. The Neill Committee is due to report on the funding of political parties later this month. In its consultative document, published last December, it asked whether such restrictions should be lifted. Let's hope it bears the interests of the poor viewers and listeners in mind as well as the self-serving arguments of the parties. Viewers want entertainment, not browbeating. Replacing party politicals with advertisements would certainly have its advantages.

We have always regulated radio and television more heavily than newspapers and billboards. The main reason was that radio and television channels were relatively scarce. When something is both powerful and scarce, you regulate it in the public interest, or so goes the Reithian argument. But audio-visual channels are no longer scarce and the regulatory regime has failed to keep up.

There are already tens of TV channels and a huge variety of radio stations. What, in principle, is the difference between them and newspapers or billboards? There is none. And, in any case, we are going to have to stop controlling the airwaves so neurotically.

The whole regulatory structure of broadcasting will change dramatically in the next decade. Hundreds of channels cannot be scrutinised in the way that five can. In the future, we will police our viewing ourselves, via electronic programme guides.

I have heard it argued that politicians reduced to 30 seconds, as in the US, are trivialised. But how are we to regard five-minute party politicals? Models of rational discourse? Profound expositions of policy? Sorry Tony, William and Paddy, but I think not. Analysis and investigation are jobs for current affairs programmes such as BBC2's Newsnight. So let the BBC carry on with that task and allow political advertising on the commercial channels.

The different regulation of media is not the only inconsistency. The advertising industry is much exercised by the fact that existing political advertisements are exempt from key parts of the voluntary code for newspapers and billboards, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. Which parts would they be, then? Well, among other things, the need to be truthful and have documentary evidence to substantiate claims! The advertisers, represented by the Committee of Advertising Practice, have asked the Neill Committee to bring political advertisements under the full code, or make them publicly and totally exempt. They fear that our elected representatives will otherwise bring their profession into disrepute.

But since it is clear that politicians will say just about anything to secure re-election, I should reassure Independent readers that the constraints of obscenity and libel still apply.

One way or another, there now needs to be consistency. Allow political advertising in all media, or ban it completely. Make the politicians subject to the codes in their entirety, or exempt them. Personally, I would allow the advertising and exempt them from the codes.

The final issue is whether the parties can afford it. Those who wish to see a genuinely level playing-field between the parties, regardless of their funds, may prefer a total ban. My view is let them get on with it and ensure that broadcasts are available free during elections. But please, let's have no more of the five-minute "Mogadon movies" between elections.