The European Court of Human Rights has given its decision in Animal Defenders International , holding that the ban on political advertising on the broadcast media does not violate Article 10. I had been convinced that the Strasbourg Court, following earlier decisions in Switzerland and Norway, would come to the opposite conclusion – but I am relieved that they did not. The ban on political ads has been a crucial measure that has helped to keep the cost of politics down in the UK. That said, it was a close shave. The ban was upheld by a majority of 9, with 8 dissenting. The decision was published earlier this morning, so what follows are my initial thoughts.
The approach of the majority stands in stark contrast to that in the US. While the US Supreme Court in Citizens United rejected arguments that corporate spending can distort the electoral process, the Strasbourg Court accepted the argument that ‘powerful financial groups’ can ‘obtain competitive advantages in the area of paid advertising and thereby curtail a free and pluralist debate’. Not only that, concerns about distortion are not limited to the electoral period:
‘While the risk to pluralist public debates, elections and the democratic process would evidently be more acute during an electoral period, the Bowman judgment does not suggest that that risk is confined to such periods since the democrafic process is a continuing one to be nurtured at all times by a free and pluralist public debate.’
This is an important element of the ruling, as it allows the state to take measures to tackle concerns about money in politics generally while staying within the requirements of Article 10.
The key area of debate was not the rationale of the measure, but the proportionality of the ban. The Court found that a partial ban on political advertising – for example allowing some issue advocacy – was unlikely to be workable, noting that such avenues were likely to be abused by ‘wealthy bodies with agendas’. Furthermore, the ban only applied to one type of media, and thereby leaving opportunities for alternative means to communicate, such as newspapers or social media.
Also significant was the fact that the ban had been considered by the UK on several different occasions, such as the Neill Report, in pre-legislative scrutiny and in court. This distinguishes it from cases such as Hirst, where a ban on prisoner voting rights had been maintained without any discussion. The Court thereby attached ‘considerable weight to these exacting and pertinent reviews, by both parliamentary and judicial bodies’.
But what about the previous decisions of the Strasbourg Court in relation to Switzerland and Norway? This I think was the biggest challenge facing the UK government when they were arguing their case. Most interesting here are comments from Judge Bratza who commented that the Court’s decision in VgT Verein:
‘did not do full justice to the purpose of the general prohibition in the legislation, which was to avoid leaving to individual judgment questions such as the wealth or influence of the individual, political party or association or the worthiness or morality of the polifical cause in question, with the attendant risks of discriminatory treatment.’
Consequently, he confessed ‘to entertaining certain doubts about the Chamber’s judgment in the case.’
By contrast, the dissenting opinion of Judges Ziemele, Sajo, Kalaydjiyeva, Vucinic and De Gaetano described the contrast with the Court’s earlier decisions as a ‘double standard within the context of a Convention whose minimum standards should be equally applicable throughout all the States parties to it.’ However, rather than being a double standard, the majority’s approach maybe an example of the way that dialogue with the UK shaped the ECtHR’s jurisprudence – or more cynically how the Court was influenced by the existing political tensions between the UK and Strasbourg.
The reasoning of that group of dissenting judges also shows a divide in the Court concerning its Article 10 jurisprudence. While the majority stressed the need for the ban to address distortion in public debate, those dissenters called it ‘well-intentioned paternalism’. Ziemele, et al emphasized Article 10 as primarily a negative right against state measures:
‘Promoting a right where it cannot be effective without additional State action is, according to our jurisprudence, appropriate, but is not a generally accepted primary ground for rights restriction. There is a risk that by developing the notion of positive obligations to protect the rights under Articles 8 to 11, and especially in the context of Articles 9 to 11, one can lose sight of the fundamental negative obligation of the State to abstain from interfering. The very initiative to legislate on the exercise of freedom in the name of broadcasting freedom, and in order to promote democracy in general terms, and for aims which may not necessarily fully conform to one or more of the legitimate aims of Article 10 § 2, remains problematic. The ban itself creates the condition it is supposedly trying to avert – out of fear that small organisations could not win a broadcast competition of ideas, it prevents them from competing at all. It is one thing to level a pitch; it is another to lock the gates to the cricket field.’
The final sentences attacks what it sees as a ‘level-down’ approach to political equality. Similarly, they went on to say:
‘Freedom of expression is based on the assumption that the speakers, not the Government, know best what they want to say and how to say it. Ideas can compete only where the speaker is in a position to determine, within the limits recognized by the Convention, which form of imparting ideas serves best the message.’
I think these criticisms are misplaced. TV is not a politics free zone, so I don’t think the gates are locked. It is just one type of transaction that is blocked. I think the state plays an important role in ensuring that the opportunities for communication are not skewed in favour of those with the deepest pockets. The case for the ban is not that people cannot decide for themselves, but that different groups should have equal opportunities to persuade people of the merits of their position.
The decision in Animal Defenders International has come as a surprise to me, but – and many will disagree with me on this point – it is a pleasant surprise. It is one in which the Strasbourg Court has moved away from its earlier jurisprudence and emphasized the importance of insulating political debate from the inequalities in wealth.
Jacob Rowbottom is a Fellow of University College, Oxford.
Suggested citation: J. Rowbottom, ‘A surprise ruling? Strasbourg upholds the ban on paid political ads on TV and Radio’ UK Const. L. Blog (22nd April 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)