Attack ads in the UK? Cameron's ex-spinner Eustice wants reform

Broadcasters have reacted to US-style political advertising with a "sharp intake of breath", Eustice complained
Broadcasters have reacted to US-style political advertising with a "sharp intake of breath", Eustice complained
Alex Stevenson By

David Cameron's former press secretary has called on broadcasters and ministers to review their "lazy assumption" against US-style political advertising in Britain.

George Eustice, now the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, said he had been frequently frustrated by resistance to his reforming ideas when dealing with the broadcasters' liaison group controlling politics on the airwaves.

He used a parliamentary debate to call for a shake-up of the way party political broadcasts are regulated, in order to give the parties more flexibility.

"It is now OK to have advertising for toys to children at maybe 6.30 or 7.00 in the morning, but we can't possibly tolerate the idea of advertising political ideas to grown adults. We need to challenge this idea," he complained in a Westminster Hall adjournment debate.

"The real objection is not the length, but the fact they are paid-for adverts. It means money buys access to television, and money buys power. That is not my proposal at all."

Eustice wants to give political parties more choice about how they use the airtime allocated to them. That would give strategists the option of a number of shorter broadcasts, perhaps even just one minute in length, in order to maximise the number of viewers and impact.

"It is time for change," Eustice added.

"The combination of declining newspaper circulations and increased restrictions on parties' ability to raise and spend funds mean we need to take a fresh look at how we give parties the opportunity to communicate directly with the electorate. It's time for us to value party political broadcasts more."

Rejecting the advice of "so-called communications experts" that the broadcasts are "quaint" and a "relic of the past", he cited a 2005 ICM poll which found party political broadcasts are second only to news bulletins as the lead source of information for general members of the public.

"The UK probably has the most draconian laws in the western world when it comes to restrictions on political advertising," Eustice said.

"Some of the restrictions we're introducing... restrict the ability of the parties to communicate with the electorate. What we're left with is a situation where there is more power to the broadcasters."

He attacked the aggressive interviewing style of major news programmes and even the two-way technique in which a political journalist "try to put a gloss on what the political leader is saying".

This overemphasis on political strategy undermines trust in the political process, Eustice suggested.

His call comes as regulator Ofcom reviews aspects of its party political broadcasting policy, following the establishment of police and crime commissioners and the development of local television.

Its consultation, which closes on January 21st, is an "excellent opportunity" for the case for change to be made, media minister Ed Vaizey said in reply to Eustice's argument.

"I believe we should continue the ban on political advertising," Vaizey said.

"One wonders when looking across the pond at the United States... I certainly feel the ban in the UK gains a lot of credibility from what happens in the United States."

When pressed by Eustice on whether his objections were about the advertising industry as a whole, Vaizey pointed out that he was the minister responsible for what he viewed as a "world-beating" sector in the UK.

"My objection is similar to my honourable friend's - it gives an advantage to political parties with deeper pockets than their opponents," Vaizey explained.

"Politics in this country is still conducted on a relatively civilised basis, and I wonder whether paid-for advertising would undermine that."


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