Ban on Christian advertising was lawful, says court

London Christian Radio Ltd and Anor v Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC) and Secretary of State for Culture – read judgment

The High Court has upheld the refusal of the broadcasting regulator to clear an advertisement for transmission on the grounds that it offended the prohibition on political advertising.

This restriction, said Silber J, was a necessary one for the purposes of Article 10(2) of the European Convention. The purpose of the ban on political advertising was to protect the public from the potential mischief of partial political advertising, and the views of the advertiser, as to whether an advertisement was political, were irrelevant.

Background facts

The claimants were a Christian radio company and a Christian publisher respectively. They sought to publish an advertisement on the radio noting the marginalisation of Christians in the workplace and informing listeners that the advert was “seeking the most accurate data to inform the public debate” and to “help make it a fairer society”. RACC refused to clear the advertisement for airing as it was of the view that the advertiser intended to use the information provided to influence or change government policy. As such, the material offended the prohibition on political advertising under the Communications Act 2003.  The claimant companies applied for judicial review of RACC’s refusal, contending that the refusal and the relevant legislation interfered with their rights under Article 10 and that the provisions should be either “read down” to conform with their right to free speech, or that they should be declared incompatible with the Convention and disapplied.

Their application was refused.

The Court’s reasoning

Silber J considered the case of  R (Animal Defenders International) v Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport [2008] UKHL 15 and concluded that even though that case is awaiting a ruling from the Grand Chamber in Strasbourg, he was bound by the House of Lords’ ruling that the prohibitions on political advertising contained in sections 319 and 321 of the 2003 Act were justified as being necessary in a democratic society and therefore compatible with Article 10. The Strasbourg ruling that went the other way, in the commercial pig farming case of  VgT Verein gegen Tierfabriken v Switzerland (24699/94) (2002) 34 EHRR 4, had been described as “controversial” and “opaque”.

The established view was that  radio and television advertising were areas where a degree of control was to be expected (R (ProLife Alliance) v BBC [2003] UKHL 23) The purpose of the ban on political advertising was to ensure that the public were protected from that form of advertising, irrespective of the views, or motives, of the advertiser.  There was nothing in the wording of the legislation which showed that the intent of the advertiser had any relevance. Applying an objective test, the instant advertisement sought to obtain information which would be used to try to make changes to society and would fall within sections 321(3)(b), 321(3)(c), 321(3)(d) or 321(3)(f) of the Communications Act  . Whilst the meaning of the statutory provisions were ultimately a question for the court, RACC was the appropriate decision maker on whether the advertisement should be cleared and its decision to refuse clearance could not be classed as irrational.

Comment

It is serendipitous and somehow telling that this ruling was handed down within weeks of Transport for London scrapping a series of advertisements promoted by a Christian organisation implying that  therapy could change sexual orientation. These were in response to Stonewall adverts, also on London buses, which promoted gay marriage rights with the slogan “Some people are gay. Get over it!”. Although this was essentially a scrap between two opposing organisations and did not involve advertising regulation as such, it serves to show that much of the deliberation about whether an advertisement goes beyond the prohibited borders of “political” promotion is confounded by the very mischief the legislation seeks to avoid: the content of the message itself.

Certainly we need regulation to prevent deep purses from determining the broadcast agenda which makes us vulnerable as listeners to certain argumentative ploys. But the London bus saga nicely illustrates the problem at the heart of this strategy. If you vigorously support the restriction of Core Issue Trust’s “anti-gay” message,  you may be in good company – Boris Johnson, amongst others – but how can you by the same principle be against restricting Stonewall’s promotion? The substance of the material is not in issue here; it is the aim of the advertising, to forge changes in society’s attitudes. It is no good trying to wriggle off the horns of this dilemma by drawing distinctions between the two messages, arguing that the one you favour is more deserving of an airing than the other.

So it is with the application of the Communications Act criteria, which is meant to be free of content bias. It invariably comes down to  preferences and the judgment as to which messages fall foul of the Act’s prohibition is inevitably impure. A line is drawn in the context of one situation such as the instant case, but the likelihood is it will be drawn differently when the situation and the participants change.

It is precisely because Article 10 offers no guidance in this dilemma that we have the Strasbourg Court going one way (VgT Verein) and the House of Lords the other (Animal Defenders) in factually similar circumstances. This is why the Animal Defenders International (ADI) group have deemed it worthwhile to take their case to Strasbourg, complaining that the prohibition of their TV screening of primates in zoos, circuses and laboratories  goes too far and is not necessary in a democratic society. The focus of ADI’s attack is on a statutory prohibition (section 321(2)(b) of the Communications Act) which applies not only to advertisements which have a political content,  but also to those promoted by a political body irrespective of the advertisement’s content. And the House of Lords accepted the argument that ADI was political because it had no charitable status. The Grand Chamber may well agree. But the abstract rights on which they will base their opinion tell us nothing about how the Communications Act is meant to protect viewers against harassment by animal rights activists (how could it be, since no-one is actually harassing anybody in TV advertisment that can be switched off).

Most utterances work to advance some interests as defined by some agenda, at least in the very broad sense contained in the Act. Therefore all kinds of utterances should, strictly speaking, fall foul of its prohibition. The act of choosing which ones do and which ones don’t is concealed in this case, as it is in all the others,  behind a smokescreen of higher arguments about democracy and public rights. The outlines of both the 2003 Act and Article 10 are so unclear it is not at all obvious what are the benefits of the first and the legitimacy afforded it by the latter.

In consequence, this debate forces the question whether there is, in truth, any form of issue-driven speech that is not political, if “political” is so broadly defined as to cover anything has consequences. If all such programming were to be denied access to TV or radio we would have no broadcast speech free of consequences; in other words, no Panorama, no Analysis, certainly no You and Yours. Just the incessant pabulum of reality series and game shows, and the wild west of the internet, where all kinds of verbal behaviour run completely unchecked.

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4 thoughts on “Ban on Christian advertising was lawful, says court

  1. Pingback: God punishes Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt for opposing London Christian Radio | eChurch Blog

  2. I can’t really comment on the legal grounds given by the judge in rejecting the claimant’s spurious claim of the ‘marginalisation of Christians in the workplace’ but – as an ignostic humanist – I am pleased he did. Every single case brought by fanatical relgionists has so far been found to be wholly without any kind of merit whatsoever. By now, many of their own supporters are getting sick of their silly tactic of trying to use the law to claim illegal discriminatory practices. Most of the cases involved employers applying sensible health and safety guidelines and uniform codes. When we see just what other people holding religious beliefs are having to contend with in other parts of the world, these comfortable, closeted religionists claiming they are being treated “unfairly” makes an absolute mockery of the very real hardships and difficulties their fellow-religionists are experiencing in other parts of the world.

  3. ‘serendipitous’ indeed. Especially when his lordship said [4], “Indeed nothing in this judgment is meant to preclude advertisements by bodies such as the claimants in, for example, newspapers.”

    This blog raises the key question “The substance of the material is not in issue here; it is the aim of the advertising, to forge changes in society’s attitudes.”. The direct pupose of the advertisment was to try and establish facts.

    John Dowdle’s comments I find logically difficult to follow. I cannot see how complaining about a lesser injustice ‘makes an absolute mockery’ of a greater injustice. A lesser injustice in a fair society still needs resolving.

    But thank you, John, for causing me to find out what ‘an ignostic humanist’ is: “An ignostic maintains that they cannot even say whether they are a theist or an atheist until a sufficient definition of theism is put forth.” – Wikipedia.

    ‘Sufficient definition’ of the true purpose of the 2003 Act seems to be the issue.

    Silber J. [59] {words added} “Applying the objective test, then I am satisfied that even after applying the anxious scrutiny test, the advertisement was seeking to obtain information and it stated that such information would {then if relevant} be used “to inform the public debate” and “to help make a fairer society”. This information, which it was seeking, would be used so as to try to make changes to society.”.

    Though not a lawyer, I find it difficult from studying the judgement to see that the actual words of the advertisment were objectively “directed towards a political end”. True it included “We will then use this data to help make a fairer society”. But are all efforts to make a fairer society by definition neccessarily political? Tolerance and respect for another’s view with which you cannot agree are surely hall marks of a fairer society – even for an ignostic.

  4. In response to Christopher Whitmey above, I state that I am not a lawyer either so the finer legal points of this judgment are probably beyond my detailed understanding. However, as an ignostic humanist, I simply say to these religious litigants, “Show me the evidence” of any ‘lesser injustice’ or palpable ‘unfairness’ they are experiencing within the UK. The fact is that they are suffering no form of injustice or unfairness – as mild as the level of proof for those situations is. There is a deliberate and concerted attempt to use UK law on the part of religious ideologues to obtain a privileged and discriminatory advantage for themselves and their beliefs. There is not a shred of verifiable evidence available to show that they are being treated any less fairly or unjustly than anyone else. As I mentioned before, every single case they have brought before the courts they have lost – and for good reason. The fact is that they are being treated very largely in an identical way to everyone else in our society but this situation does not suit them. Because of their beliefs, they believe they are entitled to receive special treatment which is unique solely to them. Well: forget it. They are not special and their beliefs – as misguided as they are – do not entitle them to any form of privileged treatment either under our law or public morality.
    Indeed, their special pleadings only serve to reinforce the fact that their delusions are leading them into a mentality of unwarranted “victimhood” in their own minds. They need to get over the fact that we now live in a modern society and that their good old medieval days are well and truly over.
    When I see reports of real oppression of people with religious beliefs in other parts of the world, I – again – have to conclude that these UK religionists really should stop their winging and whining. After all, what can they possibly have to compalin about in our modern day society? They are free to believe whatever nonsense they want and there are no consequences attached to that as a result of living in a modern secular society.

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