It’s time to change political advertising rules

Free TV CEO Bridget Fair argues that now's the time to reconsider Australia's political TV advertising rules.

Last year, commercial free-to-air television broadcasters were approached by an exciting new client to run a major campaign to reset its reputation. It was a great vote of confidence in the power of free-to-air television to reach a broad audience and deliver a clear message.

There was just one fly in the ointment, in the form of a licence condition exclusive to television and radio broadcasters. The condition requires all political advertising to be “tagged”, that is, to include a billboard at the end that lets viewers know who has authorised the ad.

In an ironic twist, the exciting new client was Facebook, which had recently been the subject of considerable political debate courtesy of Cambridge Analytica and the US election campaign. This meant that the ad would need a tag.

Facebook understandably viewed its ad as a communication with customers rather than a political lobbying exercise. Suffice to say they were unhappy. Very unhappy. They argued that they had run the same ad on television in every other country in the world without any problem. They could also run it on almost every other platform here in Australia without the tag, including broadcasters’ own streaming and BVOD services.

The ad was eventually recut for Australian broadcast television, resulting in expense for the advertiser and a reduction in the proposed television component of the campaign.

It would be hard to come up with a clearer example of the out-dated regulations that hinder commercial television broadcasters every day – except perhaps for the election ad blackout that applies in the three days before polling day. Come election day, the only place you won’t find a political ad is on commercial television or radio. These rules were conceived when the Berlin Wall was still up, the Sony Walkman was cutting edge and you could still send your kid to school with a peanut butter sandwich.

The rules were conceived when this was cutting edge

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook announced it would adopt new self-regulatory political advertising rules. But just last month Facebook said it would wait until the Federal Election date is announced to decide which, if any, of its new rules will be applied in Australia.

This is the same platform that can actively target users with fake news to influence their voting intentions. Yet we continue to over-regulate commercial television, while forcing it to compete for advertising revenue with this very same platform on seriously disadvantageous terms.

The Federal parliament recently introduced new political advertising rules that apply to electoral matter provided across digital, print and broadcast media. But for television, these are on top of their existing licence conditions for political ads.

There is no doubt that if someone engages in political messaging for the purpose of influencing an election outcome, we should know the identity of that person. But the same rules should apply regardless of the media platform if both are competing for the same advertising spend. In an age when so many people access news and information in so many different ways, there can be no benefit to the public in requiring greater levels of regulation across some platforms and not others.

It seems that for Facebook these new laws are firmly in the Not My Problem basket. Facebook has said that it is the Australian Electoral Commission’s job to monitor political ads on its own platform and that it will rely on users to report illegal ads. Imagine if commercial television took such a cavalier approach – it simply would not be allowed.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), to its credit, has recognised that commercial broadcasters are burdened by out-dated regulations that are in desperate need of revision. As part of its Digital Platforms Inquiry, the ACCC has recommended another review of these regulations to decide what should be done to bring them into the modern age. It wants the review to consider all forms of communication including Facebook, Google and Apple News.

A review, however, takes time and there are certain laws that so obviously act as a competitive disadvantage for commercial broadcasters that every second they are in place means a loss of potential revenue. Political advertising laws are just one such example.

We don’t need another review. A further review can add nothing to the debate other than another statement of the obvious. We just need a few simple changes to the law to allow broadcasters to compete on fair terms. And with the Federal Election only months away, we need it now.

Bridget Fair, CEO, Free TV Australia.


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