A former Canadian Liberal legislator is calling for a permanent ban on political television and radio ads in Canada, citing the status quo of restrictions on political messaging in Britain as his model. In Britain, John Milloy says, “major political parties” are each apportioned an equal amount of time by on government-licensed television stations to make their pitches.
Early in the piece, Milloy reassures readers that the British ban does not apply to pamphlets, newspapers, billboards, or social media. Just a few paragraphs later, however, he changes his tune. When contemplating the legal prohibition of all paid political messaging on the internet in Canada, he states, “as (social media and the internet) evolves and continues to grow in importance, there is certainly room for a broader conversation.”
The British law inspiring this proposal is the Communications Act of 2003, which regulates and restricts political messaging on television and radio. It includes the following text:
An advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is— (a) an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature; (b) an advertisement which is directed towards a political end; or (c) an advertisement which has a connection with an industrial dispute.
This year-round prohibition on political advertising is not restricted to partisan messaging. The text of the law prohibits the broadcasting of all paid advertising deemed to be entirely or mostly political – from anyone. The broad language casts a long shadow. For instance, advertising produced by Amnesty International concerning the Rwandan Genocide was deemed mainly political in nature in 1998 and prohibited from being broadcast on television or radio.
Political outsiders seeking elected office will be disadvantaged, as they must be approved by the government through a Kafkaesque process. The regulations favor status quo parties. A critique of this proposal described the Communications Act of 2003 as a law advancing the self-preservation of Westminster MPs.
Also included in the act are requirements for “impartiality” when it comes to “matters of political or industrial controversy” and “matters relating to current public policy.” Television and radio operators are required by law to meet the state’s definition of impartiality when it comes to any discussion of issues falling within the aforementioned categories. Government bureaucrats determine what constitutes fairness and balance.
Milloy’s call for government control of political messaging on radio, television, and the internet comes at a time when his party has been struggling with fundraising relative to its opponents. In the second quarter of 2015, Liberals raised $4.03 million from 32,789 donors; Conservatives raised $7.4 million from 45,532 donors; and the NDP raised $6.3 million from 41,161 donors. Canadians will be going to the polls on October 19, voting in the country’s 42nd federal election. Recent polls show a tight race between the three parties.