The first thing that anybody who has grown accustomed to the all-out noise that accompanies American general elections will notice when covering British politics is just how quiet the place is by contrast. Today is election day in the UK, but, unless you were especially interested, you would not necessarily know that. Here in Cambridgeshire there are a few yard signs out for the Tories, a few for the Lib Dems, and a few for UKIP (Labour doesn’t really play around here), and the radio reminds us each hour that we may vote today if we so wish. But that’s about it. On TV, the coverage is muted and dull. There are no interviews with partisans; no entreaties from political operatives; no campaign commercials desperately urging independents to vote. Rather, there is the flat observation that a general election is on, and then a swift changing of the subject.
In part, this is because the media here is so strictly locked down. During what the regulators consider to be the “election season,” the newspapers may say what they will — and they do. The radio and television stations, however, are forbidden by broadcast rules from doing anything interesting at all. They may not take a side. They may not express strong opinions. They may not promulgate anything that is not strictly “factual.” Per the BBC, even relevant political issues are off the table: “Subjects which have been at issue or part of the campaign — or other controversial matters relating to the election — must not be covered on polling day,” writes Ric Bailey today.
From an American perspective, at least, they may not be covered entirely freely on any other day either. Per the relevant regulations, television and radio stations are forbidden from interviewing a candidate from one party without inviting his opposite number to participate; they are forbidden from allowing a candidate to make a set of particular points without giving his opponents time for a rebuttal; and they are forbidden from featuring a candidate in any program that is not explicitly “political” in nature. Moreover, both before and during election day, campaign commercials of any sort are flatly banned (this ban, which seems primarily to hurt smaller organizations, was narrowly upheld by the European Court in 2013); it is illegal, per the 2002 Representation of the People Act, “to publish, before a poll is closed, any statement about the way in which voters have voted in that election, where this statement is, or might reasonably be taken to be, based on information given by voters after they voted”; and it is a criminal offense for a politician to represent his opponents or his positions in a manner of which the electoral commission disapproves (this is protected speech within the United States).
All in all, this provides something of a culture shock. And yet for all these many commandments, if one wants to find a raging discussion, one only needs to look online, where the rules do not apply. As the Independent confirms,
Radio and TV stations have to restrict coverage on polling day to factual accounts.
However the same rules do not apply to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and email and political parties are planning to bombard millions of people on these platforms to maximise their vote.
This they have done. And thus, Britain has seen its first attack ads. The BBC notes:
So-called “attack ads” – many from the UK’s main political parties – have emerged across social media in recent months, free from the strict rules that apply to television.
Both Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority say they can’t stop the ads because they don’t have the power to control what happens online.
Recent videos from the Conservatives include a grinning Ed Miliband outside Downing Street with former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.
It warns of the “chaos” of a Labour-led coalition with the SNP.
Last week Labour released a video accusing David Cameron of trying to avoid the TV leadership debates.
Given how willing the British are to permit restrictions on their freedom of speech, I would not be at all surprised if OfCom and the ASA did indeed attempt to “control what happens online” in the not-to-distant future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if — sensing a means by which they can increase their own power and influence — the major British political parties began to push hard for exactly such a law. How successful they would be, however, would remain to be seen. Just as gun control was effectively killed the day that the 3D printer was invented, the arrival of the Internet has made it almost impossible for governments to censor and to control free expression. Driving around the winding lanes of southwest Cambridgeshire, with my car radio on, I may well be spared the electoral noise. But there is a battle raging online now — and it seems unlikely to go away any time soon.