The Communications Act's banning of political adverts does not violate rights to free speech, the High Court has ruled. An animal rights pressure group has lost its case, though it may appeal it to the House of Lords.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) want to be able to advertise in broadcasts, which is banned by the Communications Act. It argued that the Act infringes its rights to free speech and therefore breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Act has an absolute prohibition on political advertising except for controlled party political broadcasts which are usually shown around the time of elections.
Charities are allowed to advertise if their ads are not "wholly or mainly political" in nature, according to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), which views and rates ads for political content before broadcast. It ruled that the ADI campaign 'My mate's a primate' broke the rules.
Political advertising was banned in the Act in order to prevent wealthy political interests from influencing the public more than groups with less money through ads on television, which Parliament believed was a more powerful and influential medium than others, such as newspapers.
"The necessity for restrictions on political/social advocacy broadcast advertising outside elections periods has been convincingly shown," wrote Justice Ouseley in rejecting ADI's case. "It is necessary to protect the rights of others through preventing undue access to the broadcast media based on willingness and ability to pay. At root it supports the soundness of the framework for democratic public debate. The broadcast media remain pervasive and potent throughout the period between elections."
The presiding judge Lord Justice Auld said that the case was made difficult by the lack of any precedent regarding what should be judged as "political" advertising. The court, he said, would have to rely on "its own resources".
Auld said that the European Convention of Human Rights did not provide a blanket right to free speech in all situations. "Article 10 does not provide absolute protection for political speech. Nor does it entitle any person or body to a right of political expression over the air waves," said Auld in his judgment.
"I have come to the view that Parliament in the context of the over-all scheme of the 2003 Act for control of the content and nature of political broadcasting, acted within the ambit of the discretionary judgment available to it in introducing and maintaining the prohibition on political, and that there is no basis for granting the declaration of incompatibility sought by ADI," he ruled.
“Although we were anticipating a tough fight, we are extremely disappointed," said Tim Phillips, Campaigns Director of ADI. "This may be the letter of the law but it is not justice. There is a considerable inequity here, with Government and big businesses able to use the broadcast media and their critics like ourselves excluded."
ADI did say that the case had been given High Court permission to proceed straight to the House of Lords for an appeal, though, bypassing the usual Appeals Court process. "We believe the Court’s decision today to allow us to go straight to the House of Lords is testament to strength of our case," said Phillips. "We believe that time will show that in this case UK law is simply out of step with modern media practice with hundreds of television channels, and also our rights under the European Convention of Human Rights.”