Political advertising gets the go-ahead to be illegal, indecent and untruthful

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The Independent Online
JANUARY 31, 2000. It might not ring any significant bells with most people but you can bet it is circled in red in the diaries of the spin-doctors at Millbank and no doubt in blue ink at Conservative Central Office.

A tinkering of the codes that govern political advertising will give politicians carte blanche to lie like they've never lied before. Whether anyone will notice the difference remains a moot point but the Committee of Advertising Practice has decided to relax the rules on political adverts to allow the spin-doctors free rein on the billboards to "make claims that are illegal, indecent, dishonest and untruthful."

Until now, parties have been subjected to the same code of practice that regulate the claims of soap-powder companies, washing-machine manufacturers, lipstick pedlars and other sellers. The code requires companies to be legal, decent, honest and truthful in their advertising. Before submitting an advertisement for publication, advertisers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims.

Politicians have also had to toe the line that their claims should not "mislead by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise." A range of dissembling skills is usually seen as required elements for the job.

But the committee, the advertisement industry's self-regulatory body, has become fed up with the squabbling between the political parties as they seek to lodge tit-for-tat complaints against each other's billboards.

Today it publishes a new code which excludes politics from the current arrangements. There have been numerous clashes between the committee and party spin-doctors. In the run-up to the 1997 election, complaints were upheld against M&C Saatchi's campaign showing Tony Blair with "Devil eyes", because it portrayed him offensively.

After the election the committee tried to devise a new system to handle the issue of political advertising but talks broke down. The Home Office refused to entertain an idea that would see the Government's proposed electoral commission do the monitoring instead. Unless the regulatory vacuum is filled before 31 January, politicians will be free to say whatever they like as long as they do not break the libel laws.

The committee's chairman, Andrew Brown, said: "A lot of complaints about these ads are complaints from one party about the other party's ads.

"So I suspect it's internal party squabbling rather than the general public finding itself deeply vexed about what is going on."

British political advertising has been especially controversial ever since Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservatives. The successful campaign she ran in 1979 featured a poster which is now one of the immortals of political ads. It showed a long queue of people and the headline "Labour isn't working".