Clear Channel is working to immediately remove a series of anti-abortion billboards in London, which have been targeting Labour MP Stella Creasy.
The ads sprung up in Walthamstow over the weekend following a protest on Saturday (28 September) by anti-abortion activist group CBR UK – which is affiliated to CBR group in the US.
While the police said the protest itself ended peacefully, the accompanying ad campaign has proven far more contentious.
The billboards carry an image that CBR says represents a nine-week living foetus. However, critics have pointed out that the ads could be misleading and distressing for women who have had an abortion or suffered a miscarriage.
CBR UK has decided to target Creasy, after she led an attempt to extend access to abortions to Northern Ireland. Legislation brought into force by MPs at Westminster earlier this week means abortion will now be decriminalised in the province – and the government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April.
Creasy - who is 8 months pregnant herself, and has suffered from multiple miscarriages - has been accused by CBR of wanting to overturn section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act - which would allow abortions up to 28 weeks.
On CBR UK’s website, the group claimed it launched the #StopStella campaign to prevent Creasy from "promoting human rights abuses of children in the womb". It also criticised her for "working hard to make abortion a human right". The group has threatened to saturate Walthamstow with "the humanity of the unborn child and the reality of abortion".
'Unfair publicity for media owners'
Twitter commentators were quick to criticise Clear Channel for hosting the ads. However, Politicaladvertising.co.uk founder Benedict Pringle claimed the issue highlighted the complex nuances of political ad regulation in the UK.
“Almost no one knows that there is no political ad regulation [in the UK], which ends up [resulting in] unfair and negative publicity for media owners," he said.
After the billboards emerged overnight, Creasy shared them via Twitter, where angry MPs shared their support.
Her tweet read: “Twitter - can you get me the chief executive of Clear Channel advertising? How much did you get for this crap?” She also said that the Met police were not going to take the case any further, as they deemed it freedom of speech.
Twitter-can you get me the CEO of @CCUK_Direct advertising? how much did you get for this crap? @metpoliceuk still think this is just 'free speech' and not harassment of women in walthamstow? Am sorry for the graphic images and @patel4witham am reaching out to you for help now. pic.twitter.com/rOG7Gc3App
— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) September 30, 2019
Following Creasy’s post, her fellow MPs responded, similarly blaming Clear Channel for the campaign and calling upon the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to take action.
This is truly appalling - can @CCUK_Direct really think it acceptable to take money for this kind of harassment of a pregnant MP who is standing up for women? https://t.co/U4ATX3N0rg — Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) September 30, 2019
Throughout today, Creasy has continued to accuse Clear Channel of wrong practice by accepting money from the anti-abortion group, asking them to donate the money from the contract.
The ASA has now confirmed that, so far, it had received over 100 complaints. It said its rule states that ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence and acknowledged that ads may be distasteful without necessarily breaking the law.
Now Clear Channel has decided to remove the ads, the ASA has said it will not take further action. Clear Channel released a statement that said it was "sincerely sorry" for any offence caused by the campaign.
A spokesperson said: "As an OOH media owner, we take a neutral stance towards all advertising and have robust procedures in place to ensure that the creatives we run comply with the UK Advertising Codes.
"While this campaign met these requirements, we accept that the content should have been scrutinised in greater detail and should not have been displayed." It said it would be reviewing the internal processes it has in place regarding the content it runs.
The nuances of political ad regulation
However, Pringle came to Clear Channel’s defence, saying media owners shouldn’t be sued for prevention of free political speech. He said the problem isn’t the media owner, instead the lack of regulation around what is and isn’t allowed in political ads.
He explained that “this is something that happens with alarming frequency, where there is a controversial political ad and as a result, the pressure is placed on the media owner to take the offending ad down.”
According to YouGov research conducted by The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, 35% of people wrongly think the rules are the same for commercial and political ads, and 51% don’t know. That totals 86% of the public do not know there are no rules on political ad regulation.
“What’s not clear to me is whether or not these MPs who get involved in this understand that there is no regulation of political ad content. There’s confusion which often ends up with negative publicity for media owners, which strikes me as deeply unfair,” Pringle said.
He also stressed the difficult position Clear Channel is leaving itself in by removing the ads; opening itself up to the possibility of being accused of not allowing free speech.
“You can see why Clear Channel wouldn't want to be put into this uncomfortable position where suddenly it's defending, or not defending, abortion law. That's not its core businesses,” he added.
To ensure this issue doesn't continue, Pringle has called for a body, a bit like the ASA, that would regulate political advertising and content regulation, who could judge whether or not the ads that run are according to rules set out.
He said in regards to factual claims, that political ads must be able to prove it before the ad is allowed to run, and it should be clear on all material who the sponsor of the advert is.
Pringle is also calling for a database - similar to Facebook's ad library report - that compiles all political ads.
While Clear Channel is working to remove the ads, the CBR has said it is holding multiple public education displays, where it will take educational banners into central London and have conversations with the public and distribute leaflets.
It has also threatened to share video and photos on its social media site.