Junk Food Ad Ban: UK Health Activists Slam Ofcom Tactics

20 June 2006

Ofcom, the UK government's media regulation watchdog, stands accused of adopting legal 'scare tactics' to deter court action over its refusal to consider a daytime/early evening ban on child-targeted junk food advertising.

Pointing the finger is the National Heart Forum, a loose-knit consortium of medical, educational and consumer groups such as Age Concern, the British Medical Association, the British Heart Foundation, the National Children's Bureau, the National Union of Teachers and Which? (formerly Consumers' Association).

The NHF is angered at a letter received from Ofcom warning that if the case goes to court the regulator would need to call "one-hundred and-forty-four interested parties" as witnesses.

The implication is clear, believes the NHF. The case would prove to be an extremely expensive action, beyond the budgets of most public interest groups - if not of taxpayer-funded Ofcom.

Jane Landon, deputy ceo of the NHF, slams the letter as an attempt to "effectively scare us off". She and her members are seething: "It is scandalous that a national regulator should use public money to attempt to out-gun our limited charitable resources by ramping up costs and wasting time".

The extent of Ofcom's action is spelled-out in a statement from Richard Stein of NHF's lawyers Leigh, Day: "Ofcom's conduct of this litigation has been remarkable. The latest instalment is that they are proposing to serve several files of legal papers on nearly 150 organisations, ranging from McDonalds to the Gaelic Media Service, inviting them to participate in the judicial review.

"In my experience, this would be completely unprecedented. It is difficult to imagine a more blatant attempt to frighten the National Heart Forum, a charity, away from bringing their serious and important claim."

Ofcom dismisses the accusation as "unwarranted". In answer, it asserts: "We are in the middle of a public consultation for which we expect a large number of organisations from across the spectrum of opinion on this issue to provide substantive responses. And, as required by the court, we have indicated this."

  • On another front in the junk food war, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising - representing UK advertising, media and marketing communications agencies - has reacted to the call by another taxpayer-funded body - the Food Standards Agency - to ban advertising of food and soft drinks to children before the 9pm watershed.

    It dismisses the FSA's demand as "sensationalist, misguided and unjustified". The IPA also refers to a recent statement by the ad industry funded Food Advertising Unit. This argues that "a pre 9pm ban on all high fat/salt/sugar foods will not solve the problem of obesity but will mean a multi-million pound loss of revenue to broadcasters. A loss they can ill afford."

    Data sourced from MediaGuardian.co.uk and Institute of Practitioners in Advertising; additional content by WARC staff