Ban the Blame
What happens to free speech if everyone blames everyone else for a “ban” and everyone is confused but no one is offended? A “sorry episode” for the Census Campaign sheds light on a confused situation in advertising.
The Census Campaign’s railway posters were first “advised” against by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) on the basis that the phrase “for God’s sake” might cause “widespread and serious offence”. According to the media agency working for the British Humanist Association (BHA) this apparently led to their franchise partner rail companies rejecting the ads. But even with an offer to alter the slogan to something very dry (like “If you’re not religious in this year’s census say so” as now appears on buses) the rail companies still declined to run the ads.
The slogan was rejected on the basis that “widespread and serious offence” might be caused specifically to religious people. We had argued that ‘for God’s sake’ is a common phrase, selected simply because it chimes ironically with the subject matter and serves to underscore the urgency of the message. We argued too that the ads were clearly aimed at non-religious people (the slogan begins ‘If you’re not religious…’). But still there was this concern that religious people would be terribly offended.
Well, were they?
In reality the slogan has rarely been an issue. It had been publicised for fundraising purposes since October, after all, and even appeared on buses in Leicester and billboards already booked in London, without complaint. We have had some messages and calls from religious people critical of the overall campaign, usually owing to a misperception about our aims given by others, and in most cases we could amiably explain away any concern to their satisfaction. The slogan itself they took in their stride.
In fact some religious fans of the campaign wrote specifically to agree with our modest aim of attaining more accurate results. Jay wrote to say, “As a Christian I fully support the campaign”, going on to argue that what it meant to be a Christian can only be “diluted” if people gave meaningless answers. Chris emailed, “I agree with your campaign to clarify the question. I myself am Christian but I agree that the questions are ‘hazy’ and can lead to misleading numbers.” Martin wrote to say, “I… firmly believe that if you are not religious (i.e. don’t regularly attend a church/mosque etc) then you should tick no religion.”
It wasn’t only the advertisers who misjudged the response of the average believer. The only religious people who did seem to disagree with the campaign were journalistic commentators and think-tanks, ironically accusing us of trying to “boost our numbers”!
So how did this “ban” happen? The situation, it turns out, is far more bizarre than a simple question of the language of one series of posters.
CAP have protested that they have no power to “ban” anything, but this seems rather coy, since their advice has two effects. First, it can be used both by advertisers or by the owners of different media spaces to reject a campaign.
Second, CAP’s advice and the media agency’s response to that advice (or lack thereof) can be used by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) itself, if they ever open a case on an advert. Now, CAP states that whether it says yea or nay to an ad, this is no guarantee that the ASA would in the fullness of time come to the same decision, but second-guessing hypothetical complaints to the ASA are what CAP base their advice on in the first place. So not only do CAP in part base their advice on whether or not the ASA might itself uphold a complaint if any were made, but in such an eventuality the ASA would then refer back to CAP’s advice for reference! (No wonder CAP’s advice to media agencies is meant to be confidential.)
BHA Chief Exec Andrew Copson over on the Index on Censorship blog has more.
This sorry episode raises two serious questions about advertising in a free society.
Firstly, how is offence to be measured? We received emails at the office from Christians who weren’t offended by our slogan and at least two Christians I discussed the issue with on radio said the same thing. On what grounds did CAP believe that offence at our slogan would be “widespread”? And what would make that offence – taken in response to a common idiomatic phrase as thoroughly secularised as Christmas – so “serious”? And why did the owners of the railway station spaces shy away from our posters when posters from the Trinitarian Bible Society saying that anyone who doesn’t believe in god is a “fool” are a perennial part of my daily commute? Is offence only serious if people who believe in a god feel it?
The second question is, although we all know that the ASA is responsible for dealing with complaints about adverts once they are up, who is responsible for deciding whether an advert gets up in the first place?
Especially in an area as sensitive as censorship, simple principles of the rule of law would demand that any regulations should be clear, accessible and universally applied and that, in the event of a decision being made, it is clear who has made it, why they have, and how it can be appealed. In our situation, this was all impossible. Both parties – CAP and the owners of the advertising space – were able to place responsibility for the censorship of the adverts on the other.
If a committee’s advice is used both by advertisers deciding whether to take ads and by the Advertising Standards Authority in judging whether ads are acceptable, then exactly who is “banning” what? We may never know. But it seems clear that religious observers are largely taking the slogan in their stride, even perplexed by the ban, and as the subsequent media coverage shows, institutional trepidation and a habit of presuming to know the sensitivities of others is likely to backfire.
Bob Churchill is Head of Membership and Promotion at the British Humanist Association.