The Friends of the Earth fracking ruling is exactly why Adland self-regulates

Elliott Haworth
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Complaints that the ASA has waded into unfamiliar, political territory – that it is acting censoriously, outside of its remit – miss the point of self regulation. (Source: Getty)

If this newspaper made wild unsubstantiated claims, presented as fact, that fracking would purify the vilest depths of the Thames, or seep a cancer curing chemical into the water table, we’d rightly have questions to answer.

So when Friends of the Earth (FoE) produce leaflets claiming that fracking could cause cancer, contaminate water supplies, increase asthma rates and send house prices plummeting, you’d hope the claims were substantiated.

Of course, following last week’s ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), we now know that they were not. Wholly because no such evidence exists, despite FoE spending the last year trying to find it, or at least someone who would discredit his professional reputation by validating their quixotic claims.

Under ASA regulation, charities, due to their often sensitive or controversial causes, are given wider scope to use “powerful or potentially upsetting images” than other advertisers. But this doesn’t quite stretch to fabrication.

The wave of fake news we presently face is peddled as a new problem, but it’s as old as its truthful, albeit less interesting, cousin. Fracking, like most grievances of the left, and despite the technology being half a century old, and strictly regulated, has been plagued with spurious claims for the last decade or so, in the name of propagating controversy.

This is the danger of pseudoscience – such was the case with MMR and the anti-vax movement: if an idea is repeated ad nauseum it pricks the public conscience and becomes a false truth, despite all legitimate evidence pointing to the contrary.

It’s a credit to the ASA and testament to the industry’s ability to self-regulate to have banned the advert and forced FoE to neutralise its patchouli scented scaremongering. The regulator has an obligation to protect consumers and society when information is not legal, decent, honest and truthful. When a charity peddles half-baked myths to raise capital, it deserves public scrutiny.

Misleading is as misleading does. Complaints that the ASA has waded into unfamiliar, political territory – that it is acting censoriously, outside of its remit – miss the point of self regulation.

When politicians make hyperbolic claims, they are accountable through public office and democratic election.

When charities scaremonger with fatuous information, who are they accountable to? The Charities Commission can do little. The press can only comment in hope of retribution.

It’s exactly because the ASA is apolitical that this ruling is correct. It is upholding industry standards, nothing more. BT can’t mislead over broadband speeds in the same way FoE can’t mislead over fracking. Will it stop the spread of nonsense? Unlikely. But it’s a good start.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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