Daily Archives: 5 January 2012

Why does the Advertising Standards Authority regulate e-petition campaigns but not referendums?

It is great to see that the Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on Paul Staines for misleading advertising as part of his campaign in support of his death penalty e-petition. It is not immediately clear however why the ASA feels it has a regulatory role here while it doesn’t have a role in regulating referendum adverts, on the basis of “freedom of speech”.

Election advertising is at least covered by legislation and the courts, something to which Miranda Grell and Phil Woolas can testify. With referendums however, it is a total free for all. At least in the case of elections however, the ASA does issue guidelines. In the case of the referendum, it refused to do even that.

So why does the ASA feel it doesn’t have a role here? As far as I can tell there is nothing in statute which prevents it from having a role and there is certainly no principled difference between regulating referendum and e-petition ads. Both are about influencing public policy; both are affected by freedom of speech.

What’s more, there is a question of significance. While a misleading advert to promote an e-petition might lead to a few extra signatures, it won’t change government policy. Influencing a referendum result with garbage, by contrast, has a significant impact on legislation and the government of the day. One could understand if the ASA had better things to do than to waste its time with Staines; it is harder to see how a referendum isn’t worth its time.

But perhaps it is Staines’ minnow status which is telling here. Cracking down on a small front organisation is pretty elementary; standing up to the combined Conservative establishment and Labour old guard is an altogether more daunting prospect. The decision is only explicable when you look at it in terms of expediency, but that doesn’t make it any more respectable.

Either way, regardless of what the next referendum happens to be on, this loophole in the law urgently needs sorting out. Because next time, it might be a referendum on the death penalty – in which case expect Stains and company to dredge out all the misleading nonsense they’ve just had their knuckles rapped over and worse.

Diane Abbott: what’s race got to do with it?

NB Sent by phone. I will add links later.

The nowtrage over Diane Abbott’s twitter comment that “White people love playing ‘divide & rule'” has been entirely predictable and lamentable, with people on both sides guilty of exaggerating their positions to the point of absurdity.

I’m not remotely offended by Abbott’s comment; it is simply too absurd a generalisation to take seriously. I find the rush by people to exclaim offence and outrage at the comments frankly embarrassing; especially since, as a rule, they have been quite transparently politically motivated. It is simply too soon after the sentencing of Norris and Dobson to play that game.

Equally however, Abbott’s initial defence that the comment had been taken out of context was weak, because there is simply no context in which bringing race into the point she was trying to make could be acceptable. Many of her defenders have leapt on this, claiming that divide and rule was a feature of white colonialism, but the simple fact is that most white people were not colonialists.

Irish potato farmers were not responsible for the oppression of Africa and India any more than Mancunian clothmakers or Italian winemakers. African monarchs who sold their own people into slavery were. There isn’t much evidence to support claims that ‘white’ empires such as the British and Romans were any more oppressive than the Persians or Mongolians.

To cut to the chase, surely racialising what is, in essence, a matter of the functions of the political-economy throughout history, is far more of an act of ‘divide and rule’ than, to return to the original discussion, questioning the legitimacy of so-called black community leaders?

Diane Abbott’s comments were in response to Bim Adewunmi raising concerns about talk of a single ‘black community’ and the people who purport to lead them. Abbott’s point was that ethnic minority groups who are more united than blacks tend to do better. This is a valid observation, but so too were Adewunmi’s objections to having people speak for her who are often out of touch.

And while Abbott is also correct to suggest that ‘divide and rule’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so is the co-option by leaders, of whatever race or background, of the groups they claim to represent.

That’s true of colonial powers, and it is true of people who enjoy the trappings associated with being a ‘community leader’ in a local authority, as anyone who has ever been involved in local politics must surely have observed. And it is true of party leaders working against their parties interests and of trade union leaders making power plays which ultimately work against the workers but which consolidate their own control and influence.

In short, strip race out of it, and there is a very important debate to be had about the nature of power, control and democracy. It suits politicians like Diane Abbott for that debate to be sidetracked by red herrings such as skin colour just as much as her loudest detractors.