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.

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