Opinion: Hot issue - Should Make Poverty History adverts be banned?

The media regulator Ofcom ruled last week that the charity coalition's TV and radio ads were too political to be broadcast and forced it to withdraw them. The campaign contends that the message was moral, not political.


We would all like to see the eradication of world poverty, and many at Ofcom are personally sympathetic to the campaign's aims.

However, all political advertising is prohibited in the UK, and Parliament has laid down exactly what it considers to be 'political advertising'.

The legislation states that any organisation whose objectives include seeking "changes in the law" or influencing "the policies or decisions of governments" is political and therefore prohibited from advertising.

Parliament deliberately removed all discretion from the regulator to distinguish between what some might call 'good' and 'bad' politics. The law therefore ensures that we cannot make any judgement about the merits or otherwise of such campaigns.

MPH is transparent about its objectives. It urges the Government "to make laws", its manifesto calls for "urgent and meaningful policy change" and it expressly characterises itself as seeking to achieve important changes to the policies of western governments. In terms of the law, MPH's campaign falls squarely within the definition of political advertising.

Whatever the campaign's basic virtues, we have reached the inevitable conclusion that the campaign is political and so cannot be advertised on television or radio.


Changes in public policy and personal behaviour are essential if we are to successfully tackle some of the greatest social, economic and environmental problems faced by our generation.

If social justice organisations are to be effective in influencing both public policy and personal behaviour, it is essential that they are at liberty to communicate with the public using the methods that will be most effective. Ofcom's decision is based on an interpretation of charitable activities that is likely to deny us that opportunity. This decision has broader implications beyond MPH.

Take Stop Climate Chaos, for example. We are all contributing to the problem and each one of us has a part to play in working for a solution. For that reason, the campaign must be able to reach a mass audience.

One of the most effective ways of doing so would be to use the power of advertising - advertising that would be consistent with the concept of public benefit. If we are prevented from using film advertising on the grounds of politics, it will undermine our effectiveness in bringing about change.

The way in which Ofcom has judged moral and public benefits as being political suggests a narrow and outdated understanding.


Make Poverty History is apparently a charity-supported coalition fronted by preening celebrities whose renewed BBC-supported visibility has enhanced their often faded commercial viability. Populist politicians have jumped on the bandwagon.

The MPH campaign has been misguided in its overtly political nature, attacking donor governments rather than corrupt and self-serving third world (mainly African) ruling elites.

The Live 8 concert and the compelling 'click' ads, which say that a child dies in Africa every three seconds, disguise the fact that $10,000 (£5,500) of untaxed capital leaves sub-Saharan Africa every three seconds. Were that money invested in clinics and schools rather than secret offshore accounts, lives would be saved and poverty reduced.

Given yet more aid without strict monitoring, many African leaders would look after themselves and their supporters first, rather than the needs of the poor.

Sadly, an ad campaign and concert urging the public to 'Make Corruption History' would neither bring more money into the ever-expanding coffers of the principal aid charities, nor tempt Pink Floyd or the Spice Girls to consider a reunion.


Our law prohibits any advertisement by a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature, and any advertisement directed towards a political end.

These expressions have been given wide meanings, including influencing the policies of national governments or influencing public opinion on a matter of controversy. The rationale is to prevent powerful financial groups from distorting the political process by exercising undue commercial influence over the public and broadcasters.

But is a blanket ban on campaigning advertisements really necessary in a mature democracy? The European Court of Human Rights has said not, ruling against a similar ban that prevented an animal protection association from advertising against factory farming on Swiss TV. If animal welfare issues can be brought into homes, an even stronger case can be made in relation to the eradication of poverty.

The Government knows it is on weak ground. When the Communications Bill was introduced, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport declined to certify that it complied with the Human Rights Act because of the prohibition on political advertising. The days of this particular restriction on campaign ads might be numbered.

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