You can't show that, it's political

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Campaign groups and charities are falling foul of strict broadcasting rules on advertising.

Paul Vallely finds a grey area somewhere between tribal peoples and tobacco companies

Listen ... can you hear it ... it's the sound of the hillsides of Rwanda where in their thousands the dead lie silent ... Listen ... it's the only message there will ever be from the disappeared, snatched by death squads, never to be seen or heard from by their families again.

Listen ... it's the silence of the bloodstained room after the torturers have left.

Listen ... it's the silence in the councils of great nations when these difficult subjects are left unmentioned.

Listen ... it's the silence of ordinary, decent people who think these things have nothing to do with them, and that they can do nothing to help.

Listen ... deep inside yourself. What do you hear?

These are the words, read by the actor John Hurt, which the Radio Authority, in its wisdom, has decided are unfit for the ears of those who listen to Britain's commercial radio stations. The reason? It's not the content of the advertisement. It's the nature of the organisation which placed it. Amnesty International is "wholly or mainly" a political organisation and, under the 1990 Broadcasting Act, political ads are banned from British radio and television.

Yesterday, Amnesty began an action in the High Court designed to change that law, or rather the over-rigorous selective interpretation which the broadcasting authorities have placed upon it. Most of the nation's campaigning bodies are hoping they will succeed.

There can be no doubt that the nation's campaigners are becoming more hard-hitting - and more effective. The RSPCA's series of full-page newspaper ads last year - "before your lamb is marinated in garlic and rosemary it is soaked in urine and excrement" - were powerfully instrumental in getting ferry companies to ban exports of live animals. Friends of the Earth's cinema ad in their Mahogany is Murder campaign showed a lavatory being flushed - but instead of water, blood rises up in the bowl, and flows over the mahogany loo seat, and images of rainforest destruction appear in the blood as it flows across the tiled floor. "You wouldn't buy your eggs from a battery hen, so why buy your tea from a battery tea- picker," said an ad against unfair trade by the charity Christian Aid.

Amnesty, of course, is not a charity. But that is not the material point. What is crucial is that what appears in our cinemas and newspapers cannot be voiced on radio and TV. Survival International is a charity. It runs health and education programmes for tribal peoples all over the world. The managing director of the cable channel Box TV was therefore surprised to receive a letter recently from the Independent Television Commission, recommending that he pull his free ads for the charity starring Richard Gere because "Survival International is effectively a "political" organisation and cannot advertise on television under Rule 10.

Everyone involved, except the ITC, was flabbergasted. The campaigning activities of charities are already heavily circumscribed by the rules of the Charity Commissioners, which permit political activities only where that springs out of their experience and knowledge of the field in which they work. The rules are quite strict. A few years ago Oxfam was reprimanded by the commissioners for a campaign on Southern Africa which was partial enough to criticise apartheid and suggest that its supporters back sanctions as the black majority in South Africa had requested - but which the British government had opposed.

But TV and radio are even stricter. The 1990 Broadcasting Act states that ads are illegal if they are "inserted by or on behalf of any body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature". And so is "any advertisement which is directed towards any political end". The ITC Code of Advertising Standards and Practice then added the rider: "The term political is used here in a wider sense than party political. The prohibition precludes, for example, issue campaigning for the purposes of influencing legislation or executive action by central or local government."

On the face of it the original idea behind the law was reasonable enough. Political advertising would be manipulated by political extremists and those, like cash-grabbing tele-evangelists which the bill also outlawed, who prey on the gullible. It would also favour those with deep pockets, which was inimical to true democracy.

In practice it has produced a plethora of fine distinctions, many of which do not bear scrutiny. Thus the Co-op Bank can say: "We don't invest our customers' money in cosmetic companies which test their products on animals." But not on television. "We can say that in the cinema, but not on TV or radio," says Sarah Ryder of BDDH, the ad agency which handles the bank's ads. "We can say that the Co-op does not invest in countries with oppressive regimes - but can't name any. When one TV ad carried a picture of a Springbok in a collage of images, it was banned. And we cannot say the Co-op does not invest in companies which pollute the environment unless we insert the word 'needlessly' before the word 'pollute'. "

Kate Phillips, assistant director at Christian Aid, has no objection to rigour. "It is fair enough to require that you have impartial verification that what you say is true," she says. But in practice it means that the agency is unable to broadcast the testimony of its people on the spot because their first-hand knowledge is often contradicted by official figures. "We might reveal how much people get paid for picking tea, only to be told it is at wild variance with the official minimum wage as set out in so-called impartial government statistics."

And who is to arbitrate? "Don't ask us," pleaded one insider at the ITC. "We don't want to end up having to decide between Greenpeace and British Nuclear Fuels on whether nuclear power is bad for the nation's health." So in practice the authorities plump for the safest option.

But the world is a complex place. The easy demarcations between charities - there to bring succour to the needy - and the politicians - there to ensure that such needs will not arise in the future - are no longer valid. Is Survival International's publicity campaigning any more political than that of the prominent TV advertiser Hanson plc, which owns Imperial Tobacco and gives large donations to the Tory party?

The Government clearly wants to turn a blind eye to such symmetries. The ITC told one objector that its predecessor, the IBA, ruled that ads by the Friends of John McCarthy were political, as the main purpose of the organisation was to seek to influence government action. But public opinion has moved on to a broader reality. Today most are prepared to confront those interconnections. It is this, rather than the strength of the campaigners' ad techniques, which gives their case its potency.

Both libertarians and authoritarians can make out an intellectually respectable case in arguing for an extreme solution. Neither is politically realistic; the public mood has moved on. A line may still have to be drawn but it must be drawn in a different place. "We don't think our ads are political. We think they are humanitarian," said Brian Dooley of Amnesty yesterday. Most people with any common sense would agree.