A new study suggests that the current ban on broadcasting political adverts is open to a legal challenge that would have a very strong chance of succeeding.
The research by Dr Kevin Rafter, who is acting head of the Department of Film and Media at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, recommends that political parties and other groups should be given greater freedom to publicise their policies and agendas on TV and radio.
Dr Rafter argues that it would be difficult to see what harm a more relaxed attitude to broadcast political advertising would do, provided certain rules are put in place.
The study, which was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's Media Research Scheme, says non-political parties should be given access to political advertising opportunities outside of election and referendum campaigns.
At the same time, it claims, the free Party Political Broadcast system for registered parties should be expanded.
The research suggests such advertising by interest groups should not be allowed near news or current affairs programming or alongside commercial ads, and should be book-ended by clear announcements stating they are a different form of advertising.
The study recommends that political advertising, whether free or paid, should be treated like other advertising in law and regulated by a specific code.
It also suggests that the obligation to carry party political broadcasts should be reviewed, and that the obligation should not be limited to public service broadcasting.
The study examines the regulatory context for broadcast political advertising in Ireland and internationally and finds that Ireland is one of a number of countries where paid political advertising on radio and television is prohibited by legislation.
It says some countries ban paid political advertising outright, others permit some paid political advertising with clearly defined limitations, while some states allow it with few limitations.
It claims both RTÉ and the former BCI have placed a very narrow construct on the word political when deciding on whether or not ads potentially breach the ban on political advertising.
The implementation of the legislative ban on political advertising has resulted in a lack of equality of treatment of different groups, which is counterbalanced by the system of free Party Political Broadcasts.
However, other bodies like trade unions and charities do not have an entitlement to party political broadcasts, but are still precluded from running political ads.
Majority do no want change to law
An opinion poll carried out as part of the study found over half of those surveyed disagreed with a suggestion that the law should be changed to allow political parties advertise on radio and TV.
The number that disagreed was less when people were asked whether the law should be changed to allow advertising by political parties and interest groups on radio and TV, with some restrictions.
Four in ten adults believe the status quo is an infringement on the freedom of expression of organisations covered by the ban. A quarter of adults described party political broadcasts as boring.
The research says that at a time of convergence between TV, radio and internet, it is timely to review the longstanding ban on broadcast political advertising.
It expresses surprise that legislative discussions on the 2009 Broadcasting Act did not contain more substantive consideration of the ongoing controversy surrounding the regulatory interpretation of the current regime.
It also claims there is significant body of expert legal opinion that the current ban on political advertising in Ireland and the UK is incompatible with the principles of European human rights law.