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Ad watchdog washes its hands of Demon Eyes

The Advertising Standards Authority looks set to wash its hands of controversial political advertising such as the Conservatives' "demon eyes" poster attack on Tony Blair

The Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP), which sets the rules by which the Advertising Standards Authority polices advertising campaigns, is considering a plan to label political adverts "propaganda out of the bounds of regulation".

At present political advertising is covered by the ASA for matters of taste and decency and the privacy of individuals. But they are not bound to the same rules of honesty and truthful presentation as commercial advertisers.

The CAP is unhappy with this "half-way house" arrangement because it feels political advertising is discrediting the reputation of advertising as a whole.

It is considering whether to include political parties in all of its regulations or consider it as pure propaganda bound by no rules.

Insiders believe it is unlikely the committee will take the regulatory option because it does not want to take responsibility for judging whether a political party is telling the truth: "We are an unelected body and have no desire to become involved in the democratic process," said Caroline Crawford, a director of the ASA. "Can you imagine the situation if during the course of an election we are asked to adjudicate on an advertisement on a matter of truthfulness. Say it takes a week for us to judge on it and in the meantime the party making the false claim wins the election. Are we then to rule that they lied their way into power?"

Last year the ASA ruled against the "demon eyes" press ad created by M & C Saatchi after it received 130 complaints from Labour Party members and church groups. It was able to censure the ad under its privacy regulations because it portrayed Mr Blair as "sinister and dishonest" and because his permission had not been sought for the ad. At the same time it rejected complaints that the ad was offensive because it attributed satanic qualities to Mr Blair.

However the ASA is known to be worried that other complaints - such as the one that the Conservative Party made against a "Same old Tories. Same old lies" poster by the Labour Party - were made in order to garner publicity and cast a shadow over an advert rather than because they honestly expected the poster to be banned.

All the major political parties are being consulted about a change in the regulations, but the last time they were consulted, in 1992, the ASA was unable to get them to reach a consensus. The review of political advertising regulations is being accompanied by a review of the rules covering the use of members of the Royal Family without their permission.