Campaigning against poverty is too political for TV watchdog

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The Independent Online

The media watchdog said the anti-poverty campaign could no longer run appeals on television and radio because its goals were mainly political.

Members of the coalition of about 300 charities, who aim to to eliminate world poverty, criticised Ofcom's decision, insisting it was "the great moral issue of our time" and not "a narrow party-political issue". Insiders said that on a personal level, many members of Ofcom were supportive of the campaign, but the watchdog insisted the law was drafted to ensure that it "cannot differentiate between what some may describe as 'good politics' and 'bad politics' ".

By law, political advertising, or advertising by bodies that have political aims, is banned from television or radio.

The Make Poverty History (MPH) advert, which featured celebrities saying "somebody dies avoidably through poverty every three seconds" was shown on a number of channels including ITV, Channel 4 and channel Five over the Christmas period and on 31 March. Viewers and listeners were also directed to the Make Poverty History website. The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, which decides what is suitable for transmission on television, cleared the advert because it considered that Make Poverty History's activities were mainly charitable in nature. Its radio counterpart said it believed the campaign's aims were "awareness-raising rather than political".

Broadcasters also said that they thought Make Poverty History was a charitable appeal, adding that even though it did not raise money, the campaign was appealing for viewers' attention.

One broadcaster said it believed that "the underlying motivation of the campaign, namely to end world poverty, was such that there was no reasonable opposing or balancing position that could be struck".

Nonetheless, a number of broadcasters were sufficiently concerned to contact Ofcom prior to transmission to ask advice on whether it amounted to political advertising.

The Communications Act 2003 defines "political ends" as campaigning to bring about a change in the law or to influence the policy of the United Kingdom or foreign governments.

In its ruling, Ofcom quoted from Make Poverty History's manifesto, which says: "We are calling for urgent and meaningful policy change on three critical and inextricably linked areas: trade, debt and aid."

The manifesto adds: "The UK Government should ... end export subsidies that damage the livelihood of poor communities around the world; make laws that stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment."

Ofcom said: "We have reached the unavoidable conclusion that MPH is a body whose objects are 'wholly or mainly' political ... MPH is therefore prohibited from advertising on television or radio".

It added: "While the eradication of world poverty may not itself be a matter of political or industrial controversy or current public policy, the manner in which it is achieved could certainly be considered to be so".

Adrian Lovett of Oxfam, a member of the Make Poverty History co-ordination team, said: "We're disappointed with this decision. Members of the ... coalition went to great lengths to ensure the 'click ad' met regulations and took advice before submitting it to broadcasters."