Transparency laws must be extended to non-campaign material, urges SoE

Posted on: November 4, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Laws governing transparency in printed election material must be extended to non-campaign material, the Society of Editors (SoE) has urged.

Responding to the Cabinet Office’s consultation on Transparency in Digital Campaigning, the Society said that existing laws that require political parties to make clear who is paying for and promoting printed election material, are inadequate and do not stop the public from being misled.

The Society warned that alongside the overdue need to extend the imprints regime to digital campaign material, the volume of every day political material marketed as ‘news’ and communicated to the public inside and outside of election time diminished the established media’s ability to be heard.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the SoE said: “In order to support the content published by trusted, verifiable news platforms, the Society strongly supports the long overdue extension of the imprints regime to digital election material. We also feel strongly that existing requirements for imprints on printed material require strengthening to ensure that the public are not being misled. It is essential that due prominence is given to imprints – regardless of the medium – to ensure that the public can quickly ascertain the origins and affiliation of everyday materials they are now presented with.”

Under the existing Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, imprints clearly stating who is responsible for the production of the material must be published on printed campaign communications. The Cabinet Office’s review is consulting on whether the regime should be extended to digital campaign material.

Supporting the proposals, Murray said that the advent of social media has meant that political parties and public bodies now have avenues of communication with the public like never before.

He added: “The way the public consumes news and information has changed dramatically in recent years. Alongside the established media’s use of printed publications and online social media channels to connect with their audiences, individual parties and public bodies now also seek to reach constituents via “newspapers” and online communication channels. Our elected officials no longer largely look to engage with the public solely during election times. As a result, the public is now met daily with a barrage of information marketed as ‘news’. Worryingly, the origin and affiliation of this ‘news’ and information is becoming increasingly unclear.”

Extending the imprints regime to also cover non-campaign material would promote greater transparency and openness in democratic government, the Society said.

Murray added: “The Society believes that it is essential that imprints are expanded beyond what is considered election material to wider print and online political advertising.  The Society has long-supported stronger measures to ensure that explicit and transparent information as to who is promoting and paying for material, both in print and online, is provided to the public.

“A free press plays a vital role in holding political parties and individuals to account on behalf of their readers and audiences. It is the job of the media to hold power to account and to question, rebut or present as fact political communications based on the evidence. Open debate is to be encouraged but this can only be achieved if the media’s ability to communicate accurate news and information is not increasingly threatened by misleading content marketed as ‘news’.”

Read the Society’s response in full here

Photo: Election material published by the Liberal Democrats during the 2019 election.