The Malta Independent 20 October 2021, Wednesday

New guidelines: Government ads should be relevant enough to justify public funds spent on them

Neil Camilleri Tuesday, 22 June 2021, 13:42 Last update: about 5 months ago

The message communicated by government advertisements should be of sufficient relevance to justify the public funds spent on it, according to draft guidelines issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.

The guidelines, which are open for consultation, are intended to ensure that ministers do not spend public funds on personal or political publicity. The principles of transparency and proportionality are used as guiding factors.

The draft guidelines come a few weeks after Hyzler found that a newspaper advert by OPM Minister Carmelo Abela was “intended only to boost the minister’s image.” Abela has refused to pay the money back – some €7,000 – arguing that no guidelines for government advertising exist.

The new guidelines do not set out new rules, but rather indicate how Standards Commissioner George Hyzler will interpret the Code of Ethics for Cabinet members in connection with government advertising and promotional material.

These include the parts of the Code of Ethics that states that ministers shall keep their roles as Cabinet members and MPs separate, as well as their roles as members of government and members of political parties. Other values taken from the Code of Ethics that are transposed into the guidelines on advertising include those of diligence, transparency, honesty and respect towards the impartiality of the public service. 

Aims of government advertising

The guidelines acknowledge that the government has a wide discretion in the use of public funds to fulfil its duty to communicate with the public. This is done to provide information about matters of public interest, to contribute to public safety and to promote the awareness of rights, among others.

Government advertising and promotional material should legitimately only be used to serve public purposes such as these.

In addition, government advertising may be used to indirectly support the media in a fair and transparent manner, in recognition of its vital role in a democratic society.

While ministers may sometimes indirectly benefit from such government advertising, there is a fine line that should not be crossed. “These guidelines seek to define that line, that is to say, the principle that government advertisements and promotional material should not be produced to serve private or partisan political purposes.” 

What is covered by the guidelines

Government advertising may include: inserts and supplements in publications in print and online; billboards; boosted or sponsored posts on social media; articles or opinion pieces that are placed against payment, and sponsored interviews and features on all mediums. 

Communications that are normally published against payment, but which are not on any particular occasion, are still covered by these guidelines.

Government promotional material may include: leaflets, brochures and flyers; calendars, diaries, and stationery: items intended to be given as gifts, such as food hampers, and accompanying material such as cards or compliment slips; greeting cards, bulk emails and bulk text messaging; videos, graphics, documents and audio clips that are produced for circulation to the public by electronic means; and videos, graphics, posters and other material that is produced for presentation or display in particular venues. 

The rules

Content should be respectful and factual.  It should not include any content that is of a partisan nature.

It should not refer to a political party or include images or slogans used by a political party or individual politicians. It should also not refer to the websites of politicians or political parties, or to partisan social media pages.

The content should not include the names or photographs of ministers.

In the case of leaflets, brochures, flyers as well as videos and audio clips, these may include content referring to ministers if it is relevant to the publication and contributes to the achievement of its legitimate objectives, and that such content is limited in relation to the rest of the content in the same publication, so as to avoid giving reasonable grounds for belief that the true aim of the publication is to promote the minister. This can only be done if the publication is not circulated or broadcast against payment.

The use of government advertisements and promotional material should not be excessive or extravagant in relation to the intended objective, while the message communicated should be of sufficient relevance to justify the public funds spent on it.

Government advertisements and promotional material should carry official logos or otherwise make it clear that they have been produced by or for the government.

This applies in particular to advertorials and sponsored interviews or programmes and any paid content. The public should be made aware that such articles have been paid for with public funds. Government-sponsored publications should carry a declaration to that effect.

Ministers should direct public funding to the media for advertising purposes on the basis of fair and objective criteria. 

Consultation

The Commissioner has issued the guidelines in draft form for consultation purposes before they are put into effect. Anyone who wishes to present reactions to the guidelines, including political parties, the government and the general public, is invited to do so. The consultation period closes on Friday 23 July 2021. After this date the Commissioner will revise the guidelines as he considers necessary in the light of the submissions received by him, and he will publish the revised guidelines on the website of his office at https://standardscommissioner.com/

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