ADVERTISING: Legal and justifiable
The criticism that the advertising wrap from the Conservative Party has attracted is understandable, if perhaps a little unfair.
Much has been made of the timing of the advertisement on the day of local and mayoral elections. However, because the News Guardian is not generally available in local shops until Friday, it would have appeared much too late to have had much influence with voters.
Furthermore, the intention was for the advertising to be generic, rather than specific to any local area, since the Conservative Party appears to have run the exact same advertisement in various newspapers all around the country. Publication of those would have been determined by the day on which a newspaper is distributed so clearly there was no sinister intent on the part of the Tories to subvert local democracy by trying to influence voters going to the polls.
The fact that in this case publication coincided with the local mayoral election day is just that, a coincidence.
To address the point that Carol Clewlow makes, it would have been impossible for the advertisement to mention the local Conservative candidate. Unlike the Labour party, whose candidate is a sitting MP, local Tories have had to hastily organise selection interviews to pick their candidate, a process not completed until the end of April, by which time it would have been too late for his name to be included.
It will have been purely down to that particular time-frame, rather than to any intention to ‘treat local democracy with contempt’ that the local Conservative candidate was not mentioned.
And anyway, as already explained, this was intended to be national, not local campaigning.
Out of curiosity, I did a quick check with the Electoral Commission guidelines, which confirm that political parties can campaign on polling day as long as it does not take place inside a polling station.
Nor is there a ban on political advertising appearing on polling day. The advertisement was not controversial or misleading and was for the national brand, not the local candidate, so was compliant with regulation around spending limits.
The newspaper didn’t modify the specifications for the advertising space to make it look like an endorsement. The advertisement was clearly labelled as “advertising” and there was no attempt to make it look like part of the newspaper’s editorial, as compliance rules require a distinction between paid-for content and editorial content, which in this instance the News Guardian plainly upheld.
In my opinion, this sort of open campaigning is preferable to the ‘dark ads’ which often appear on social media. It is clear, up front and has the important side-effect of helping to support the vital work of local newspaper journalism.
By contrast, the sort of personalised political advertising which appears on Facebook is subject to little oversight and can mean that different voters in the same constituency receive contradictory messages. It is also almost impossible to regulate.
Editors are not making a political statement by accepting advertising, and it doesn’t influence the even-handed political coverage local newspapers, such as the News Guardian, provide.
In the tough trading conditions of the digital age, newspaper editors cannot afford to turn business down. Local newspapers are suffering from a decline in print advertising as advertisers increasingly use online media.
What is interesting here is that people are usually very quick to defend the concept of a free press and the right of newspapers to say what they want, when they want, but when a political party tries to say something to voters, while also contributing to the coffers which keep news organisations afloat, they get hot under the collar.
I can’t help wondering whether an advertising wrap from the Labour Party would have generated a similar amount of consternation and outraged indignation.
Political advertising in local newspapers is both legal and morally justifiable, so get over it.