Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Advertising Standards Authority accused of gross interference in political free speech

SPUC has accused the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of "gross interference in political free speech", following a ruling issued today against an advertisement opposing same-sex marriage.

The ASA's ruling applies to an advertisement published earlier this year by SPUC, which predicted some of the negative consequences govermment's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill (now Act) 2013.

SPUC's advertisement warned that "gay relationships will be promoted in schools" and that "NHS-endorsed websites, which promote high-risk sexual practices, will be mainstreamed in secondary schools". The ASA has deemed the advertisement "misleading", taking issue with the words 'promoted' and 'NHS-endorsed'.

SPUC stands by every word we included in the advertisment.

As I told the press today:
This ruling is ridiculous. It is based on semantics, as if it was an exercise in proper English usage totally removed from what will happen in practice as the bill is implemented. Are we to receive a list of acceptable adverbs and adjectives?

There is no logic to the ASA's conclusion. The ASA fails to address the whole rationale of the Bill - that there is to be equality between same-sex and different-sex marriage. If it is 'misleading' to state that same-sex marriage will be promoted, then it must be also be 'misleading' to say that different-sex marriage will be promoted.

The ASA's position is fatuous. Is the ASA going to monitor how the legislation works in practice? The ASA should not seek to police the public debate about forthcoming legislation.

SPUC has cited the conflict of interest at the top of the ASA, which is chaired by Lord (Chris) Smith, the former Labour minister and prominent homosexual, who is also chairman of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. It is axiomatic that an organisation’s   chairman will take a direct interest in its affairs. It is just too simplistic to say that the issue of bias is addressed by stating that Lord Smith took no part in this ruling. The complaints, the decision to select them for consideration and the ruling itself are plainly consistent with Lord Smith’s political views. The ASA, with or without Lord Smith’s direct involvement, is well aware of those views and of where he stands in the debate. In no other sphere would this be considered acceptable or consistent with the absence of actual or perceived bias. If the ASA intends to seek to police the political debate, then common sense dictates that it cannot be run by a politician.

The ASA said that SPUC's advertisement was "misleading" in describing third-party websites listed on the NHS website as "NHS-endorsed". The NHS website carried no disclaimer regarding the third-party websites. If a group posted a link to a third-party site offering bomb-making advice, the police would not excuse the group on the basis that it was not responsible for the third-party site.

It is dispiriting that in an area of fundamental free speech we have been reduced to debating semantics with an organisation who believe that politics can be reduced to measurable objectivity, as if it was a spat between Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Advertising is not our business and in the future we would certainly question the wisdom of engaging with the ASA on any level.

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