Readers of this blog, and many others, sent complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority a year ago when the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Bedtime Story climate change advertisements appeared on TV and in the print media. This resulted in two of the print media advertisements being banned on the grounds that they were misleading, and a good deal of adverse publicity for the politicians when complaints reached record numbers.

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(If the video viewer does not appear on your computer then use this link)

However the ASA only dealt with some aspects of these complaints. There were 537 people who were concerned that the Bedtime Story video, which appeared repeatedly in slots on prime-time television, amounted to political advertising. This is banned in the UK under the Communications Act 2003 and is a matter for the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, and not the ASA.

We were all informed by the ASA that complaints falling into this category would be referred to Ofcom and that:

When both bodies have concluded their investigations we plan to notify complainants of bout our and Ofcom’s decisions, and we will write to you again at that point.

Things didn’t work out quite that way. The ASA published their decision back in March, but Ofcom has only managed to do so this week. Having read what they have to say (Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin No 167 p20-28) one might reasonably wonder what has taken them so long.

Their deliberations seem to have gone no further than looking at the complaints (and I know that they have done this as mine is quoted briefly in the decision notice), and obtain statements from the DECC and Clearcast. The latter provides advice to advertisers at the production stage on avoiding breaches of broadcasting legislation. And that’s it really - not much to show for a year’s deliberation.

Needless to say, both the DECC and Clearcast claim that the Bedtime Story advert was just a public service message pure and simple, with no implications for current public policy. This is important as the CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code says:

SECTION 4: POLITICAL AND CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES

No advertisement:

(d) may show partiality as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy

Ofcom seem to be content to accept the government’s version of events. They say that:

Ofcom noted that DECC had argued that this advertisement informed and educated members of the public about climate change to “…reinforce and provide a context for the practical messages and advice contained in other advertisements in the Act on CO2 campaign about changes in behaviour needed”.

However, Ofcom considered that the nature and extent of the information imparted by the advertisement itself was relatively limited – for example about actions viewers themselves could take or consider. It was Ofcom‘s view that, for this reason, the advertisement came close to the limits of acceptability as an advertisement of a public service nature. On balance, Ofcom decided that the inclusion of the image of the young girl turning off a light switch, and the message at the end of the advertisement providing viewers with a further source of information about specific actions they could take was adequate to merit the advertisement being classed as of a public service nature.

On the particular facts of this case, for all the reasons set out above, and having taken account of all submissions, Ofcom concluded that the purpose of the advertisement was to raise viewers‘ awareness of the issues of climate change, in the context of energy conservation and its relevance to viewers. This was achieved by means of some information provided within the advertisement, in combination with specific information provided by the Act on CO2 website, to which the advertisement referred. The advertisement was therefore of a public service nature and, as such, it fell within the exception at section 321(7)(a) of the Act. Therefore, the advertisement was not in breach of the prohibition on political advertising.

So Ofcom acknowledge that that on the limited basis of the arguments they considered, the government was sailing very close to the wind when they launched this advertising campaign, but narrowly avoided breaking the law. And the evidence that they considered certainly was very limited.

I am sure that my own complaint was not the only one that pointed out that the DECC adverts appeared in the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, and at a time when Gordon Brown was expected to call a snap general election early in the New Year. Opinion polls had appeared throughout the summer showing growing climate scepticism among the public. Given that the government was vigorously promoting a binding global treaty on carbon reduction at Copenhagen that would have a very real impact on voters, it is not easy to avoid the conclusion that an advert that sought to convince people of the dangers that climate change could pose would be very beneficial to the Labour Party.

Ofcom make no mention in their decision notice of the impending general election, or of the need to recover waning public support for a potentially politically toxic climate deal at Copenhagen before voters headed for the polls. And yes, I put this argument in my compliant as I am sure that many others did.

Then there is the matter of the role played in all of this by the new leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, who was then secretary of state at DECC and directly responsible for the advertising campaign. The following message from Ed appeared on the website www.edspledge.com, replete with Labour Party logos: and don’t miss the last paragraph.

From Ed Milliband [Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change]

“I know you care about climate change, but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, not everyone does. Indeed there are many people who still believe it’s not happening, or if it is, the activities of human beings have nothing to do with it.

As part of an effort to raise peoples’ awareness of man-made climate change and what we can all do about it, the government had this advert made.

Now, whipped up by the sceptics, nearly six hundred people have complained about it in a bid to get it banned.

Don’t let the sceptics silence us

Please show your support for this advert, and our wider efforts to make people more aware of climate change.

Please send the advert on to a friend and ask them to show their support too

We need to show that the climate change sceptics are a tiny, if vocal, minority and that action to make the public aware of climate change has real public support.

Don’t let the sceptics silence us

Thank you for your time, your voice makes all the difference.

Ed

To unsubscribe, please click here. Privacy: we won’t pass on your email address to anyone else. See http://www.labour.org.uk/privacy Reproduced from an email sent by the Labour Party, promoted by Ray Collins, General Secretary, the Labour Party, on behalf of the Labour Party, all at 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA”

Of course I mentioned this in my complaint too, and helpfully provided a link  to the page on the Labour Party’s website. In fact just to be on the safe side, in case the web page vanished into hyperspace, I attached a copy of the text. There is no mention in Ofcoms decision of this either, and I am quite certain that some of the other 536 complainants will have drawn their attention to it as well.  Alas the Ed’s Pledge page is no longer to be found, but then a year,and a change of government, have quietly slipped by since the adverts appeared.

Is it unreasonable to wonder if, had Ofcom considered the Bedtime Story advert in the context of the Copenhagen Summit, and of an impending general election, and the Secretary for State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s use of a Labour Party website to muster political support when the campaign backfired, then an advert that ‘came close to the limits of acceptability as an advertisement of a public service nature’ might have been seen to have decisively crossed that boundary?

But they chose to ignore all these issues entirely, not even mentioning them in their summary of the complaints, and have instead relied entirely on what the DECC and Clearcast told them in order to reach their decision.

One last point, Ofcom’s usual procedure is to inform complainants in advance of a decision being published in their Broadcasting Review so that they have the opportunity to request a review if think have grounds for doing so. The first I heard about this very strange exoneration of the government was when a Google Alert picked up a report in the Media Guardian. If anyone else had advance warning from Ofcom I would very much like to know

9 Responses to “Ofcom manage to clear Labour government on political advertising charge – just!”

  1. 1
    Alex Cull Says:

    TonyN, ditto re not being informed of the outcome directly by Ofcom (this is the first I’ve heard of it), and ditto again re Ed Miliband and the Edspledge connection; like you, I provided a link and made the point very clearly about the (party) political advertising that was going on. I’m sure we were not the only ones; I think the connection was established loudly and clearly, but that it was ignored.

    There’s also this: “Further, Ofcom noted the ASA‘s decision on those complaints it had received that objected that the advertisement‘s claims about anthropogenic climate change were exaggerated, misleading or likely to mislead viewers. The ASA did not uphold the complaints.” My response would be: so what? I thought the point of the Ofcom investigation was that it would be independent, not that it would have to involve some sort of consensus. Or am I misreading this?

    Like you, I’m very curious as to the reasons for this considerable delay.

  2. 2
    TonyN Says:

    Alex, #1:

    I don’t think that you are misreading that at all.

    In another case before Ofcom — which I haven’t blogged about yet — I was told that a film complied with the impartiality requirements of the Broadcasting Code because it had a certificate from the British Board of Film Censorship. When I pointed out that the BBFC is an industry funded self-regulatory body which is in no way concerned with the Broadcasting Code, and Ofcom is the statutory regulator designated by the Communications Act 2003, they apologised.

    IMHO the same applies in this case. The ASA is in no way concerned with compliance with legislation, and any decision that they take is quite separate from, and irrelevant to, Ofcom’s duties as the statutory regulator. It is up to them to reach their own decision: and justify it.

    I can think of no good reason for either the delay in reaching a decision or in failing to inform complainants that one had been reached, but I can think of plenty of bad ones. I haven’t checked yet, but I am pretty sure that they are in breach of their own code of practice on the latter point.

  3. 3
    Bob_FJ Says:

    TonyN,
    If you have been following your NS 12,000+ comment thread, you may have noticed that I’m in the throes of complaining to the Oz ABC about extreme bias on climate change in their “The Science Show”, firstly addressed to their board, and then as referred to their “complaints unit“.
    I realize that you are busy, but I’m disappointed that you have not offered any assistance, as I asked, given your greater experience with the BBC and related bureaucracy than me.

    Regardless, I don’t know if you might find if the following is off-topic to this thread, but I find it to be of some relevance here, and to my complaint to the ABC. It is detail from WUWT:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/8060211/BBC-told-to-ensure-balance-on-climate-change.html

    “BBC told to ensure balance on climate change
    Climate change sceptics are likely to be given greater prominence in BBC documentaries and news bulletins following new editorial guidelines that call for impartiality in the corporation’s science coverage…”

  4. 4
    peter.geany Says:

    TonyN Tony it doesn’t look as if Ofcom has covered itself in glory here. I get the feeling they are just trying to brush the whole thing under the covers. I think also they may have got many more complaints than they are admitting to but have been able to ignore them due to a technicality with the way the complaint was submitted, mine being an example. I don’t think our present government will be prepared to do anything about poor regulation as they may need some for themselves.

    I too have complained to the ABC. I complained directly to the Chairman via his private secretary, and have had a reply with a link to make the complaint formal. I’m not sure I will as it will just be a waste of my time.

  5. 5
    geoffchambers Says:

    Brute will correct me if I’m wrong, but if a member of the US government boasted to fellow-Democrats how he’d spent government money on silencing his critics, wouldn’t he find himself up before a Federal Judge rather quickly?
    Yet here is ex-minister Ed Milliband saying:

    We need to show that the climate change sceptics are a tiny, if vocal, minority and that action to make the public aware of climate change has real public support.

    So while the official reason for the campaign is to gain support, the unofficial reason, announced to party members, is “to show that the climate change sceptics are a tiny, if vocal, minority” and “to show that action … has support”. Not at all the same thing.
    As for Ed’s “Don’t let the sceptics silence us” (repeated) … Where are the howls of ridicule from the press and (ex) opposition? The idea of a government minister refusing to be gagged by 900 sceptics who complained to the ASA is beyond parody.

  6. 6
    TonyN Says:

    Bob_FJ, #3:

    I am flattered that you should think that my advice would be useful given my lack of success in trying to persuade the BBC that they may sometimes breach their editorial guidelines and the legislation that underpins them. If, as it seems, ABC at least attempt to keep their complaints handling procedure at arms length from the broadcasters, then it will be very interesting to hear how you get on, and you should have better prospects of success.

    So far as the recent change in the BBC’s editorial guidelines is concerned, I will probably post about this at some point as there would seem to be rather more behind their decision than is immediately apparent to the MSM. In the meantime, I don’t expect any radical change in their coverage of AGW.

    PeterG, #4:

    What was the technicality?

    Geoff C, #5:

    Spot on! And if you shilly-shally for a year over producing a decision it really does when you bury the inconvenient evidence.

  7. 7
    peter geany Says:

    TonyN I can’t now recall the details but somewhere along the way my complaint disapeared into the either, and when I enquired about it they said I must have made an error. As so many others had complained I gave up, and didn’t follow through.

  8. 8
    Bob_FJ Says:

    Peter Geany, Reur 4,
    I think it would be good if you, and as many people as possible, were to make a formal complaint, via the Chairman of the ABC board in the first instance, since, according to his secretary, he does appear to note and pass it on to their “complaints unit”. I would think that the chairman at least, might be sensitive to the issue if there are complaints from overseas, quite apart from the complaint count itself.
    Contact details for others are available in the WUWT article:
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/10/05/abc-interview-wrongly-torches-skeptic-position/#more-25929

    I’m also complaining about an earlier science show of 21/Aug/10, which has meatier problems/omissions with the actual “science”. Transcripts of that show (two parts) are available if anyone interested;

    The science of climate change:
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2010/2985182.htm

    Eureka science prizes (A rant about climate change “deniers etc” by the science minister)
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2010/2989087.htm

    TonyN, Thanks your 6, I was wondering if you might have some tips, but as you say, the process seems to be rather different to your experience.

  9. 9
    Alex Cull Says:

    The Edspledge web site has disappeared (and the Wayback Machine doesn’t seem to have it) but there are still fragments to be viewed on Facebook. It’s very party political, but no mention here of the “Bedtime Stories” ad, as far as I can tell, so Ofcom could still point to this and say: what evidence?

    Some snippets:

    From 5th May, 2010:

    Fight climate change tomorrow | Vote Labour
    http://www.edspledge.com
    We need to return a Labour government committed to building on our achievements in fighting against climate change – and avoid a Conservative government more concerned with placating their sceptical backbench MPs.

    From 18th March 2010:

    Co-sign Ed Miliband’s letter to Cameron on Tory lack of commitment to tackling climate change.

    From 21st October, 2009:

    Co-sign my letter to David Cameron
    http://www.edspledge.com
    After Ken Clarke’s comments on wind farms, I’ve decided to write personally to David Cameron, asking him to overrule Ken Clarke and make their policy clear. I’m going to deliver the letter tomorrow morning but need your support if it’s to have impact.

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