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Sat 15 August 2020
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Stephen Kinnock MP and Kyle Taylor explain why self-regulation of political ads won’t work and how we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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Last month the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency launched Defending Our Democracy in a Digital Age, a landmark report with 20 recommendations for how we can rid our electoral system of dodgy data and dirty money —and we were delighted with the quantity and quality of constructive feedback we received.

This report is the result of a major inquiry which took place over several months in 2019 and called a range of leading experts on electoral law. The Parliamentary group received written and oral evidence from more than 70 organisations and experts including Facebook, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Electoral Commission. MPs, regulators, peers, and campaigners reveal how UK elections are wide-open to abuse, with electoral law not properly updated since 2001 – when the internet was barely recognisable compared to today.

The 20 recommendations cover three areas; transparency, monitoring and deterrence. They include: abolishing the cap for fines on breaching electoral law; closing foreign donor loopholes by ensuring all donations have to be UK-based, reducing permissibility check requirements from £500 to 1p; and moderating the ability of campaigns to micro-target voters based on personal data.


The ‘Leveson Problem’ with Self Regulation

Following the piece titled ‘Rogue Political Ads that Lie Will Never Be Tamed Without Regulation’ published on Byline Times Times 29 January, we felt it pertinent to offer a response. The article suggests our recent report was “missing” the most important issue — introducing self-regulation of political advertising similar to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The author cites a YouGov poll conducted during the 2019 General Election campaign which showed that 87% of the UK public agree “that it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts should be accurate.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find a poll that suggests a majority of people do not want an arbiter of truth.

The problem however is that when you take it one step further and ask them “who” they believe is lying, their response is almost always “the other side”. This makes – as we discovered after receiving evidence from more than 70 sources — the structure of an effective solution extremely difficult.

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While the author’s proposed model is, on the surface, incredibly sensible — it doesn’t address this important aspect of the problem. Who people believe is entirely dependent on how they vote and any notion of “self-regulation” would never earn the public’s trust.

This is exemplified by the total failure of press regulation: when the actors themselves are given the power to regulate themselves, they don’t do much regulating. Why not turn to the government then, you might ask. What Labour supporter would believe a Conservative government will objectively judge the truth of their statements, and vice versa?


The Fact Checking Solution

This is why we recommended a “fact checker” coalition. This coalition will have clear, transparent duties and fact-finding procedures to provide trustworthy, impartial information in areas of public concern. That body could at least offer a way to rebut certain factual statements. If done in collaboration with the sites on which most ads appear, these stories could be countered in real-time.

The organisation Full Fact suggested “this kind of public service could potentially be provided by a wider range of public service institutions depending on the topic. It could be government itself (for example, when it comes to the law this could build on the work on public legal education already overseen and supported by the Solicitor General); trusted and independent public bodies such as the NHS (their Behind the Headlines service is a good example); or academic initiatives with a specific communications role and resources (where successful models include the Institute for Fiscal Studies).”

When we set up the APPG, we set out to identify achievable “quick wins” that will have an outsized and immediate impact. While there is always further we can go, let’s also remember not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

Stephen Kinnock chaired APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency. Kyle Taylor is project director at Fair Vote.


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