Saturday, December 14, 2002

Iain Murray points to Peter Ridell's article in the Times, discussing how Britain's long term ban on political advertising on television is likely to be overturned as an illegal restriction on free speech by the European Court of Human Rights. However, both main political parties support the ban, as they think that paying for television ads will send them bankrupt. The fear that such a change will lead to hugely expensive American style political campaigns and associated fundraising is brought up at length.

Something similar happened in Australia about ten years ago. Australia had long allowed television political advertising, with the bizarre proviso that there was an "electronic media cooling off period" for three days before the election in which the election was not permitted to be mentioned in any way on television or radio (be it in advertisements, news programs or any other context).

About ten years ago, the two main political parties decided that television advertising was too expensive for them, and passed a law banning it, and requiring that established political parties be given a certain amount of free airtime, as in Britain. The television networks challenged this law in the courts, and the High Court of Australia eventually declared the law unconstitutional. (The Australian constitution does not explicitely guarantee free speech, but it does guarantee free electrions, and the court ruled that free elections are not possible without free speech, and therefore that the constitution implied free speech on political matters. This seems quite reasonable to me. The "cooling off period" was brought down at the same time). Therefore, Australian television networks continue to carry campaign advertisements.

Americans no doubt find the idea of banning political advertisements bizarre and undemocratic, and I pretty much think they are right. Politics is much more of a closed shop in Britain and Australia than it is in the US. You have to have go through a certain lengthy career path in the party and parliament before standing for any high office, generally, and the American idea that anyone can spend lots of money on a campaign, enter a primary, and get elected is something that the other countries don't really have. Politics is instead for a certain political class, and genteel bans on advertising and free air time given to established parties (and hence their chosen candidates) are a symptom of this. (Airtime is based on votes in previous elections, and it works on a basis of thresholds, so that the official opposition gets equal treatment to the government. Obviously, though, this protects the existing political class). Foreigners are astonished at the huge sums of money spent on political campaigns in the US, and the fact that this to some extent restricts politics to rich people is clearly not good, but American politics is much more of a free for all, and I think this is generally good.

The peculiar thing here is that Australian politics resembles British politics much more than American politics, even though political paid ads are allowed in Australia, and always have been. The sums spent on Australian campaigns are not especially large, and party structures in Australia are similar to those in England. It may be that the ban on TV ads in Britain is more of a symptom of the the closed shop than a cause of it. It may be that the huge sums spent on political campaign in the US have more to do with the structure of American politics (primaries especially) and government (directly elected executives and officials rather than a parliamentary system) and the wealth of America, and the history of American democracy (a free for all is the American way of doing things), than to the fact that paid TV campaigns are legal. If so, the structure of British politics remains safe, even if the law is changed.

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