Catholic bookshop/publisher Veritas is raising hell (sorry) over not being allowed to run an ad on Irish radio. The Irish Times has a report and another one. Religious advertising on television and radio is banned in Ireland under statutes as far back as the 1960 Broadcasting Authority Act.

I must say I’m quite disappointed in the reporting and in particular in some of the expert comments. For example, Maura Hyland of Veritas:

noted the “myriad of adverts being broadcast for alcohol, for example – which are not creating difficulties for the BCI”.

which is extremely unfair on the BCI (Broadcasting Commission of Ireland), given that religious advertising is illegal (whether the BCI likes it or not) and alcohol advertising is not. It is the people, through their elected representatives, that chose to put religious and alcohol advertising in different categories. Not the BCI. I appreciate that it’s easy to blame the typical faceless bureaucratic set of initials for all of life’s problems but the buck must stop somewhere, and in this case it’s with the national parliament.

Indeed even solicitors Mason Hayes & Curran are at it (though I can only imagine that they were quoted out of context) :

Solicitors Massan Hayes and Curran, who have advised Veritas described the ban as absurd and said a similar promotion by major stores would have been allowed. “It is almost certainly the case that an identical advert from those advertisers would not be rejected by the Commission,” the lawyers said.

Well it’s very simple. There is a difference between religious advertising and secular advertising. Secular advertising isn’t illegal. Of course an identical advert would not be rejected – why would it?

Anyway, back to the journalists. My problem here is that essentially the same provision was the subject of not just a Supreme Court decision but an unsuccessful challenge at the European Court of Human Rights in the past ten years. How can we expect there to be knowledge of the law among non-lawyers if fairly important elements like this are just omitted, as if they had never happened in the first place? (The case is Murphy v IRTC [1999] 1 IR 26, or Murphy v Ireland at the European level). They don’t mention a single past situation of dispute over religious advertising other than those related to Veritas (though there are many to choose from: Power to Change for example) which would lead the reader to believe that this is a first-time dispute. They don’t mention that there was a lengthy public consultation on this question and the then Government decided to keep the ban. Public engagement with the legal and political processes is so important and it is set back so far by leaving out simple and obvious facts.

There is little that is new here. There is perhaps a relatively minor, but interesting argument to be made over whether the legislative provision is being interpreted correctly. There is a broader argument over whether the provision should be amended or repealed (neither the ECHR nor Supreme Court decision would preclude this) which could be interesting, but few of the objectors seem prepared to deal with that challenge, choosing instead to carp about religion v alcohol and other festively red herrings. Indeed, given that the same advertiser, Veritas, was the subject of a negative decision at the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) regarding a fairly similar ad earlier this year (here (.doc, I’m afraid)), I smell a publicity stunt.

The final prize for misunderstanding the law goes to the unnamed PA reporter on the Irish Times site, who says:

Under a new Bill being reviewed by TDs, the rules will be changed to ban the promotion of one religion over another while ads will be allowed to promote religious papers and magazines for sale and promote religious events.

The latter point (ads to promote papers & magazines and events) is already the law – it was inserted in the Broadcasting Act 2001 – in response to various past problems. If the reporter can’t tell the difference between the law as it is and the proposed legislation, then no wonder the various contributors to the debate are confused.

The actual change in the Bill is to move from statutory language banning advertising directed towards a religious end to banning advertising “which addresses the issue of the merits or otherwise of adhering to any religious faith or belief or of becoming a member of any religion or religious organisation” (language that is already there in the recent amendment on books & mags & things, but in a different order – I’m not sure if this means anything more than tidying-up in practice, need to look at that in more detail). It’s just like the Lisbon Treaty problem, where a section that has a new bit and a restated bit gets lumped together as a change to the law. If the Broadcasting Bill got dumped, it would still be legal to promote papers and magazines and events – because it already is! Personally I think it’s silly that the exception says papers and magazines are OK but books and CDs are not, but that’s another day’s work.

This is not to say that there is no factual argument here – there could easily be. Diarmuid Martin (Archbishop of Dublin and as far as I recall with significant legal training in his back pocket) addresses this point in the Irish Times article quite well. I just wish that the reporting and the upset advertisers could give an accurate version of what the law is (and even what the law should be). Too much to ask for?