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How Campaign Finance Laws Made the British Press So Powerful

If “special interests” are often cast as the villains of U.S. politics, media proprietors play an equivalent role in the UK. In the U.S., candidates, parties, and special interest groups spend huge sums of money to gain an advantage in the ad-wars. By contrast, the most vicious political messages in the UK tend to be found in the pages of the tabloid newspapers. Political actors in the U.S. slug it out through 30-second spot ads, while across the Atlantic the campaigns are fought through newspaper headlines. What accounts for this difference between the two countries? While some of it doubtless lies in the unique culture and history of each place, their respective campaign finance laws may also provide an important part of the explanation.

In comparison to the U.S., the UK has what appears to be a tough set of controls on campaign spending. The total amount that political parties and candidates can spend during an election campaign is limited, and spending limits are imposed on the electoral activities of independent organizations as well. Independent organizations can spend no more than £988,000 ($1,594,000) in support of a political party in the UK in the 12 months before a general election and no more than £500 (approx. $800) in support of an individual candidate in the month before an election. As it happens, in the 2010 UK election very few independent organizations came close to spending anything near the national limit. Why this should be the case is not clear. One explanation is that, with no limits on political contributions in the UK, interest groups or wealthy individuals may simply find it easier to give money directly to a political party than to set up their own independent electoral advocacy campaigns. Another possible reason is that because political advertising on the broadcast media is prohibited, there are fewer forums available in which independent organizations might choose to spend money in the first place.

There is, however, one type of independent organization that plays a very prominent role in UK elections: the mass media. The UK’s campaign finance laws explicitly exclude newspapers, periodicals, and broadcasters from political spending controls. As a side issue, it is not clear if or how this media exemption applies to online publications—so Huffington Post (which recently launched their UK website), take note. The regulatory framework means that the primary participants in an election (i.e. the candidates and parties) cannot spend unlimited sums on their election campaigns, nor can independent organizations, but a newspaper proprietor can use his property to disseminate election messages as much as he wishes. The mediated coverage that takes place on television and in the press is therefore the main forum for campaign debates.

The UK press have long had partisan attachments and played a campaigning role in elections. The type of opinionated and polarized news that is now a feature in U.S. television and radio has for years been found in the UK print media. Simply having election spending controls in any country does not mean, of course, that British-style press power will automatically emerge. However, the laws have preserved the existing powerful role for the press in the UK, while curbing the chance for any other type of organization to engage in a similar level of electoral advocacy.

The campaign finance laws in the UK therefore give the media a privileged position, but it is limited to the newspapers. Television and radio, by contrast, are under a legal duty to give all political matters “due impartiality,” while editorializing on political issues is prohibited. A broadcaster therefore cannot endorse a political party or give overtly biased political coverage. A politician may still have some incentive to please those controlling television and radio, for example to ensure that reporters remain on good terms. Yet the returns on such activity are limited, as the broadcaster cannot advocate a particular election outcome. The newspapers, in turn, are the only outlet that can engage in electoral advocacy without restraint from either spending controls or content regulation.

As a result, whoever controls the newspapers has a much greater capacity to steer the course of an election debate. Given the relatively small number of titles with a national audience and levels of concentration, this influence lies in the hands of a small number of companies. News Corporation alone has over a third of the market share for national newspapers. This explains why so many politicians went out of their way to win the favour of Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants. While elections are not won or lost as a result of a newspaper endorsement, most politicians do not want to take the risk of receiving unfavourable coverage. 

To some, this situation may reveal the problem of campaign finance laws: By trying to prevent parties from spending large sums of money and stopping wealthy independent organizations from dominating the campaign, the relative voice of the newspapers is enhanced. But rather than admit that campaign finance laws are futile, one might also conclude that controls on campaign spending should be complemented by attempts to address media power.

The most obvious strategy in this regard is to limit the concentration of the media. Given the unrivalled capacity to engage in unrestrained electoral advocacy that comes with owning a newspaper, it is important that no single person or company be able to dominate the market. Others, by contrast, have called for the regulation of media content. Most of the content regulations being discussed at present are aimed at stopping invasions of privacy and preventing the acquisition of information through hacking and blagging. There have, however, been some calls that newspapers be required to cover political matters with due impartiality, as is required on UK television and radio. But even at the height of anti-Murdoch feeling, such a far-reaching measure seems very unlikely to be pursued.

Such measures would be unthinkable under the First Amendment—but much of the UK campaign finance laws would not survive that standard either. Indeed, there is often as much concern about the power of media moguls in the UK as there is about state censorship, and the legal system gives greater scope for controls on the press. And while the robust political tradition of the UK press should not be sacrificed, it is time to think about how newspapers can better reflect a wide range of opinions and not give so much power to the proprietor

Jacob Rowbottom is the author of Democracy Distorted (2010) and a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Cambridge, UK.