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Can newspapers take part in referendum campaigns

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Yes – but only up to a point. The reason is that newspapers appear to be subject to the expenditure limits in referendum campaigns. Any person or body spending over £10,000 in a referendum has to register as a permitted participant with the Electoral Commission. Permitted participants are then subject to a spending limit of £500,000 (the official campaign and political parties can spend more than that).

Yesterday, Jenny Watson told the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that newspapers would have to register with the Commission ‘if they wished to express a view editorially on whether the voting system should be changed’ (quotation taken from the Guardian report).

This is different from what happens in elections, where newspapers are exempt from spending limits. This creates a problem as the media then has a privileged position in which it can use as much of its resources as it wishes on infuencing the election – but everyone else is subject to a spending limit. As I have written before, that exemption needs to be rethought in the light of internet communications (which are not exempt from election spending limits). However, there is no similar provision exempting the media from the spending limits in a referedum.

So at least in the referendum campaign the privileged position of the media is curtailed. There will still be difficulties in applying it. For example, how do you decide the value of a newspaper editorial in favour of AV? Another problem is that newspaper influence can come about through the slant in a story or the presentation of details, rather than outright advocacy. If this falls outside the definition of regulated material, then it may do little to curb the newspapers. There is also the question of the response of the press – will this be challenged in the courts on free speech grounds?

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Categories: Media
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