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Prominent Conservatives accused of “anti-freedom” stance in advertising controversy

SENIOR members of the Conservative Party are under scrutiny for their role in a call to action against what they label an advertising “boycott” of certain television channels. A cohort of influential Tories, led by former Prime Minister Liz Truss, has penned a letter to the current Prime Minister, urging him to sever connections with the Conscious Advertising Network (Can). Can is an organisation focused on breaking “the economic link between advertising and the harmful content that divides communities.”

The group of 46 Conservatives asserts that Can poses a “threat to freedom of speech and media plurality in this country.” They claim that Can pressures companies into boycotting news outlets, thereby creating a media landscape devoid of the diversity of viewpoints found in modern Britain. Among the signatories are former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former home secretary Dame Priti Patel, and several members of the right-wing Common Sense Group. They call on the government to distance itself from Can’s influence.

Can recently contributed to a government consultation on online advertising, which prompted the group of Conservatives to request that Chancellor Rishi Sunak ensure “politically motivated activists are kept well away from government policy.”

Can responded to the allegations in a statement on Twitter, asserting that the notion of state intervention in the advertising industry as advocated by the letter is “anti-freedom and anti-choice.” They argue that advertisers should have the freedom to choose where to place their ads, thereby allowing the market to dictate the attractiveness of hateful content and disinformation. Can further questions whether the MPs support advertisers’ freedom to choose and the public’s right to be free from harm.

In addition to criticising Can, the MPs’ letter also accuses major advertising agencies including WPP, Publicis, Dentsu, Omnicom, and the Interpublic Group of participating in an effective “boycott” of specific Ofcom-regulated TV channels. The MPs characterise this “opt out” as a stealthy boycott that promotes a two-tiered society, where brands and agencies discriminate based on political views. The letter does not specify the channels affected, but some brands have announced they will not advertise on GB News.

GB News, a channel facing backlash due to its content, has witnessed the ramifications of this advertising dispute. The channel’s CEO, Angelos Frangopoulos, deemed the situation detrimental to business and harmful to public discourse and free speech.

Can’s co-founders, Harriet Kingaby and Jake Dubbins, refuted accusations that they advocated for a boycott of any TV channels or media platforms. They clarified that while advertising agencies advise on ad placement, the ultimate decision rests with individual clients. Some brands continue to advertise on channels like GB News.

This letter to the Prime Minister by Conservative MPs appears to be another front in the ongoing “culture war.” It follows allegations of banks closing accounts of individuals with differing views and concerns among Conservatives regarding perceived discrimination against right-wing speakers on university campuses.