Who rules on what is acceptable in political radio advertising?

Comment from Peter Saxon

Last week saw an intriguing incident involving a Clive Palmer radio ad that aired across Grant Broadcasters’ Qld stations. It contained misleading information about COVID related deaths, leaving the network with little choice than to issue a rare statement regarding its position on the matter.
At issue are these 31 words from the Palmer ad: “Australia has had one COVID-19 associated death in 2021 but the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) reports there have been 210 deaths, and over 24,000 adverse reactions after COVID vaccinations. Authorised by Clive Palmer, Brisbane.”
What exactly is the message here?
With Clever Clive’s obtuse wording, especially when heard on radio without the aid of written punctuation, it could be construed to mean that ‘Clive Palmer authorised 210 deaths and over 24,000 adverse reactions after COVID vaccinations.’ Of course, that’s absurd. In a feeble attempt at humour, I used Clive’s exact words but out of context to give it a meaning that obviously is not the one intended. 
What I did, though, is tantamount to what Palmer did in his ad quoting the TGA. He used the exact same words as those in the TGA statement but omitted those that gave it the context and therefore the meaning that the TGA intended to convey to the public. At least with my little joke, I left all the words there so that you, my astute reader, were in little, or no danger of being misled.
Now, gentle reader, I implore you to spend 15 seconds to listen to Palmer’s ad and decide for yourself what message you heard.

You may have heard something different to me – radio is, after all a very personal medium. Here’s the message that the ad on first hearing conveyed to me: There’s something fishy in the figures we hear about deaths caused by COVID-19 vaccines. Although the media keeps telling us that only one death (since doubled to two) has occurred, the TGA reports that 210 have occurred, along with 24,000 adverse reactions as a result of COVID vaccinations.
Let me be clear, the ad does not say, “as a result of” COVID vaccinations. Nonetheless, that was my initial “impression” when I first heard the ad. I suspect that was the case with a significant number of listeners simply due to radio’s ephemeral nature. Audio ads are meant to be heard, not read so that every word of copy can be forensically dissected for exact legal meaning. In this context, to the casual radio listener, the word “after” means pretty much the same as the phrase “as a result of.” 
The proper context of the TGA’s statement, or at least, my impression of it, is that some 3,000 Australians die every week from all sorts of causes. Of those, the, TPG has thoroughly investigated the deaths of the 210 people that they’ve identified as having recently had a COVID jab before they passed. Of those 210, only two were found to have died as direct result of the vaccine. The others were mostly in high morbidity categories including advanced age and pre-existing conditions. 
Another of the 210 investigated, I’m told by a source, may have died within moments of leaving the vaccine clinic. But that could more likely be attributed to them busily texting their friends about having just had the jab, thus failing to notice the fast approaching number 263 bus on their right – who knows? But the fact is – and it’s a fact that is as easily accessible to you and me as to Clever Clive – that only two people to date, not 210, have shown any link between an untimely death and having had a COVID vaccination.
It’s unclear how these highly contentious ads slipped through the cracks to get to air in the first place. But within days, they were gone and, I am reliably assured, will not be returning. Nonetheless, with growing public interest in the campaign, Grant Broadcasters who normally prefer to remain neutral in any political issue, bar that which affects the radio broadcast industry, was compelled to issue a rare and carefully crafted statement which I’ve copied and annotated below. Their words are in italics.
Our radio stations strongly support their local communities and that includes fully supporting initiatives that keep our community safe, like the Federal and State Government COVID-19 vaccination programs.
Good start that nails the network’s colours to the mast with strong support for government and the vaccination initiatives and by inference condemns Palmer’s efforts to undermine their messaging.
Now we get to the crux of the matter, not only for Grant Broadcasters but for broadcasting as a whole:
Currently in Australia there are not any regulations that restrict the contents of a political advertisement. 
The  ACMA, CRA and Ad Standards all told us they don’t have jurisdiction over political advertising. 
If not them, then who does? Radio stations work to a detailed set of rules and guidelines governing what content is fit to be aired. They cover topics like truth and accuracy, public taste, racial vilification and so on. Apparently, though, it’s a free for all if you claim your message to be political.
Note: There’s even a question mark over whether Palmer’s ad fits the dfefinition of political advertising. The last line: “Authorised by Clive Palmer, Brisbane,” is well and good but Palmer is not at present a member of parliament nor are any members of his United Australia party.
We also have a responsibility to allow lawful public debate about matters of public importance.
And without clear guidelines as to what constitutes public debate and what is dangerously misleading propaganda, broadcasters are left rudderless. If they broadcast the ads, they risk a public backlash from the mainstream. If they take the ads off, they’ll likely be subject to a tsunami of abuse from the anti-vax crowd and the libertarians who’ll cry, “censorship.” They’ll ask (with some justification) who is Grant’s to arbitrate what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to hear? 
When Twitter, and then Facebook, banned Donald Trump from their platforms, many people applauded the move. Yet, they felt uneasy that these giant, unelected corporations could have such control over public discourse.
In any case, how can a ‘one to many’ high rotation campaign of 15 sec ads, written by a billionaire who has the funds to purchase time on a megaphone that covers almost all of Queensland be considered a debate?
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has acknowledged the concerns we raised regarding this messaging and we are grateful to the TGA for stepping up to provide a clear statement of the Federal Government’s position on this type of political advertising. 
Finally, a government authority to the rescue! The TGA’s ‘clear statement’ lets Grant’s and other broadcasters off the hook by providing a higher authority, which they can quote, as grounds for refusing advertising that contains misleading information about vaccines without further correspondence. “Sorry mate, we’d love to run your ads but our hands are tied. Take it up with the TGA”
The advertisements are no longer running across our network.
Good work!
One question remains: Why isn’t political advertising subject to the same kind of rules relating to truth and decency as any other product or service?
The simple and most practical answer is that any authority designated to rule on such matters would be inundated with partisan politicians and voters, of all stripes, demanding a Royal Commission into every utterance from the other side, real or imagined, with which they had an issue.
But the broader truth is that there seems to be little appetite amongst the political classes for stricter rules that govern what they say to us, and particularly about each other. Perhaps it’s because they know only too well that the battle for votes is won in people’s hearts, more than in their minds. And in the heart, impressions will always win over facts.

Peter Saxon




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