Political Advertisements and Air Space for Public Service Broadcasting

Francis L.F Lee -  Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong
(Translated by Chow Hang-tung)

[中文][Jul 2010 - The Journalist] Should Hong Kong allow political advertisements to be aired? This question suddenly came into the spotlight when the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) "bought" a midnight slot on Commercial Radio Hong Kong, arousing much controversy. Commentators have pointed out that many democratic countries such as the USA, Japan and South Korea allow political parties and organisations to put political advertisements on television and radio, so why should not the same be allowed in Hong Kong?

Those who oppose this view often use the argument that allowing political advertisements would lead to a state of affairs where money equates to political clout. Yet such arguments have much implicit assumptions and should not be taken at face value. What I would like to discuss in this article, though, is something beyond money-politics - how would the quality of political communications in the public space be affected by allowing political adverts?

To discuss this question in depth, we must first have some knowledge of how other countries handle political advertisements. The following information is extracted from "Sage Handbook of Political Advertising", published in 2006, and might not be the most accurate nor up-to-date. Yet they are sufficient to illustrate some conceptual problems.

British and American Systems Demonstrate Different Ideologies

An oddity among public discussion in Hong Kong is that, whenever people talk about foreign experiences, they always quote America. Yet in the field of political communication in a democratic society, the U.S. is at most an archetype but not the norm. It means that the situation in the U.S. is quite different from other democratic countries, but she is still a most representative example among a particular type of societies. On the topic of whether or not to allow political advertisements, the U.S. represents the "Opinion Market", where commercial logic rules supreme. Political parties, candidates, and even political ideals are all treated as commodities, free to be bought and sold in markets, where the best would naturally win in the market competition. As a result, the U.S. allows political parties to buy advertisement slots on commercial television, and promote themselves in their own way. As for the Public Broadcasting Services funded by public money, they would not be requested to provide free time slot to the parties during an election period, since government should not be involved in "market competition".

If the U.S is the best example of the "Opinion Market", then the U.K and France are the corresponding role models of countries that emphasise "public realm".

European countries have a strong tradition of public broadcasting services, the rationale being that the airwaves belong to the public, and broadcasting space is an important component of public space; this space should have room for all kinds of opinions, and the proportion of public space allocated to these different opinions should not be affected by the wealth or power of their supporters. Under the influence of such traditional principle, political parties in the UK and France are not allowed to buy advertising slots on television; but to ensure equal opportunity for different parties and candidates to communicate with the public via public airwaves, both countries offer political parties free publicity time slots during elections.

Of course, during the past 30 years, the introduction of commercial broadcasting in European countries has also made an impact on public broadcasting services. As a result some countries have developed regulations that fall between these two archetypes. For example, although the public television station in Germany provides free air time to political parties during election, and political parties are forbidden from advertising on public television, these parties can still advertise on commercial television. In Japan, the government allows political parties to advertise on commercial television, yet the difference with Germany is, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), the public broadcasting station in Japan, does not offer free airtime to political parties during elections. In Mexico, there are even rules that during presidential elections, television cannot broadcast more than 200 hours of political advertisements, and the corresponding limit for radio station is 250 hours. Thus we can see that there is considerable variation between the two archetypes.

Protecting Public Space from Pollution

The variation in rules in different countries tells us: when thinking about whether or not to allow political parties in Hong Kong to advertise on the media, the fear of money-politics should not be our only consideration. Rather we should think more about what kind of political communication and messages we would want to see on the airwaves that form our public space. Germany allows political parties to advertise on commercial television yet forbid them from doing the same on public television; such rules are obviously not born out of fear of money-politics. If that is the case, they should forbid political advertisements even on commercial television. In my opinion, the concern of the German government is that they would like to leave the public television as a platform for healthy, nonpartisan and rational public discussion, and political adverts could "pollute" such a platform.

The word "pollute" might sound exaggerated. However, if we look at the situation in the U.S. then we would see that much controversy could arise from giving the green light to political advertisements on every platform. Some academics have pointed out that in the past 20 years, more and more negative campaigning has appeared during elections in the U.S. Candidates no longer talk about their own political programmes, nor do they strive to establish a positive personal image. Instead they focus their energy on viscously attacking their opponents, with a main tactic being putting on election adverts that aim to mislead voters and slander their opponents.

In the early 1990s experimental results of Shanto Lyengar, professor of Communication Studies at Stanford University, demonstrated that negative campaign adverts only make voters more cynical, more distrustful of political parties, and less inclined to vote. In other words, negative campaign adverts have much adverse effect on the political culture of a society.

Of course I cannot say that if Hong Kong allowed the broadcasting of political advertisements on the electronic media, we will go down the same path as America. Yet how can we be certain that political advertisements in Hong Kong would not be as misleading as housing adverts? Undoubtedly whether or not to impose a complete ban on political advertising is a debatable question, yet giving political advertisements free rein is definitely not wise. And, in thinking about how to control political advertising, both money-politics and quality of political discussion in public space should be the yardsticks.