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21 June 2012

Resisting unaccountable censorship

Resisting unaccountable censorship

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has recently been in the headlines for two important rulings.

Firstly, they issued a final adjudication with regard to Healing on the Streets (HOTS) Bath. The ASA had originally ruled – following a complaint from a secular humanist - that the contents of the HOTS website and a leaflet handed out to the public could give false hope and provide a misleading expectation to some people that they would be healed and could discourage vulnerable people from seeking medical advice. The ASA ruled that HOTS Bath was in breach of advertising standards in expressing their belief that God can heal physically as well as spiritually and emotionally.

Their appeal to the independent reviewer has been successful and as a result the ASA has been obliged to make a slightly more favourable adjudication; though whether this amounts to any significant 'victory' for Christians is in some doubt.

HOTS Bath has issued a statement welcoming the fact that the ASA have admitted that following an official review “there was a substantial flaw in their previous judgement”. They point out that the ASA has now accepted the independent reviewer's recommendation that the HOTS Bath website is actually outside the ASA's remit and therefore beyond their jurisdiction because the statements made on it reflects their beliefs and relate to a 'cause' or 'idea'. The website in question explains HOTS’ belief that God can heal and provides information about prayer offered by their volunteers. The ASA has therefore now finally confirmed that nothing on the website is in breach of the advertising regulations.

HOTS Bath said: “This is great news and sets a clear precedent for Christian websites to be able to share testimonies of God’s goodness through physical healing with out opposition from official bodies.”

However, the ASA still consider that printed leaflets handed out could be in breach of the advertising regulations and HOTS Bath has consequently amended the leaflets to take account of the concerns expressed by the ASA.

But Tom Cordrey, a barrister at Devereux Chambers, said: "Arguably the revised adjudication is worse than before! Previously, the ASA had found that it was a breach of the Code to say that people would be healed (which we would have agreed was not a sensible form of wording). Now they have corrected the decision (recognising that HOTS had never said that God ’would’ heal, but rather that He ‘could’ heal) to state that it is a breach to say that people could be healed. That is a greater restriction on freedom of speech for Christians. There is a small but valuable victory in relation to the website, but the primary issues on which we disagree with the ASA on remain the same."

The second recent adjudication involving the ASA relates to advertising which upholds traditional marriage by the Coalition for Marriage on websites and magazines. This led to the popular blogger Cranmer mounting a high profile public campaign against the ASA for “bullying, harassment and summary judgment”.

The ASA was criticised because it decided to proceed with an investigation based on only 24 complaints with the ASA's chairman Lord Smith coming under specific pressure because of a perceived conflict of interest, given that he was also vice president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

In the event, and in a decision no doubt influenced by political considerations, the ASA's final adjudication did not uphold the complaints that the marriage advertising had been “misleading” or “offensive”.

The role of the ASA is coming in for increasing public scrutiny. It is an independent non-public body ultimately answerable to no-one, there is only a very limited appeals process, its decisions are final and it appears to be a law unto itself. Christians need to be wary about falling foul of its sometimes ideological and rigid judgments. Which is why some churches are now consulting lawyers before putting up their wayside pulpits.