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Double standards at UK's advertising industry watchdog

26 June 2013

London, 26 June 2013: The UK's advertising watchdog has been accused of double-standards as it conducts an investigation into a newspaper advertisement about the government's bill on same-sex marriage.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) which produced the advertisement, said the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was protecting election advertising by politicians but censoring non-election advertising about bills proposed by politicians. SPUC made the accusation in a reply to the ASA sent today (see correspondence below), further to its response to the ASA of 21 June, in which SPUC accused the ASA of political censorship http://www.spuc.org.uk/news/releases/2013/june21

SPUC's advertisement warned that "gay relationships will be promoted in schools" if the Government's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill becomes law. The ASA launched its investigation after a complaint alleged that the statement was "misleading". The ASA has demanded that SPUC substantiate its claim.

The ASA replied on 24 June to SPUC's response of 21 June as follows:

Dear Mr Smeaton,

Thank you for responding to the complaint. The next stage of the investigation is for me to draft a recommendation which will be circulated to SPUC and the complainant for any comments before the case is presented to the ASA Council.

Regarding your comment about the 1979 "Labour isn’t working ad", the ASA’s remit does not extend to political advertising. Please refer to our website for more information http://www.asa.org.uk/Industry-advertisers/Industry-what-we-regulate/Complaints-outside-remit.aspx. However, ads for causes or ideas do fall within our remit. Please see for example the similar case involving Coalition for Marriage http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2012/6/Coalition-For-Marriage-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_192907.aspx

I will be in touch again in due course with a Draft Recommendation. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.

Kind regards,

Lucy (Crowe)
(Investigations Executive, Advertising Standards Authority)

SPUC replied today to the ASA as follows:

Dear Ms Crowe,

Thank you for your email.

I note that the ASA Code states that "for reasons of freedom of speech, [you] do not have a remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international election or referendum" but that said, you apparently consider that advertisements concerning proposed legislation are not a matter for free speech. So far as the ASA is concerned politicians can speak freely to the people but the people cannot speak freely to politicians. You say "ads for causes or ideas do fall within our remit". Our advertisement was not for a "cause or idea" (whatever is meant by that); it was about proposed legislation.  If organisations cannot publish advertisements concerning the impact of proposed legislation without the ASA demanding in effect that they are objectively justifiable then that truly is a fetter on free speech. The right to comment on the legislative process is fundamental to democracy. It is absolutely ridiculous that at the behest of a single complainant and in respect of proposed and not even finalised legislation, the ASA is going to be arbiter of what is and what is not misleading. Who is the ASA to gainsay the impact of proposed legislation? As I made clear in my email of 21 June 2013 the overwhelming feeling is that the ASA does not fully appreciate the ramifications of what it is doing.

You thank me for my patience. I have no patience on this matter I am afraid. You took a month to bring your complaint, then chivvied us for a response within 14 days and demurred when we took 21 days. Now that the matter is back with you speak airily of being "in touch again in due course". If you impose arbitrary deadlines then at least have the courtesy to deal with matters with the same dispatch you demand of others.       

Yours sincerely,

John Smeaton
(Chief Executive, SPUC)

SPUC's communications department can be contacted on:

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