UK advertising watchdog admits it was wrong to ban Greenpeace fracking advert


Photograph: Greenpeace

The UK’s advertising watchdog has admitted it made the wrong decision when it banned a Greenpeace advert last year which claimed fracking would not cut energy bills.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) originally ruled in May 2015 that the advert was misleading due to the green group’s statement that experts agreed fracking would not reduce energy costs.

But on Wednesday the ASA council, following an investigation led by its independent reviewer, conceded that it erred in upholding a complaint against the advert, as the “general consensus” was that a meaningful reduction in bills was highly unlikely. One of the only high-profile figures to have made the claim that hydraulic fracturing would cut household bills was the then prime minister, David Cameron.

It is relatively rare for the ASA to overturn its rulings following an appeal, which in this case Greenpeace had made after the watchdog banned the advert, which ran in the Guardian in January 2015.

Hannah Martin, Greenpeace UK’s fracking campaigner, said it was an embarrassing climbdown for the ASA.

“This was a farcical attempt to stifle the crucial public debate on fracking, and it should have never happened,” she said. “This U-turn is an embarrassment not just for the advertising watchdog but for all the industry advocates who keep touting fracking as the miracle cure to high energy bills.”

The advert had said: “Fracking threatens our climate, our countryside and our water. Yet experts agree – it won’t cut our energy bills.” Lord Lipsey, a member of the House of Lords economics affairs committee, had complained to the ASA and said the claim could not be substantiated, a complaint which the ASA upheld.

The revised ruling on Wednesday rowed back on that. “While a range of more conditional expert views also existed, the general consensus among most appeared to be that a meaningful reduction in UK domestic energy bills was highly unlikely and/or was limited to a small number of potential scenarios. We therefore considered the claim as it was likely to be interpreted by readers had been substantiated and was not materially misleading,” it said.

An ASA spokeswoman said: “It is only right that, where our council is presented with persuasive arguments and evidence, we are prepared to overturn our original ruling and put that on the public record.”

The revised ruling comes as a decision is expected within the next fortnight by Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, on whether the government will accept an appeal by fracking company Cuadrilla, after its planning application for two shale gas sites was turned down by Lancashire council last year.

Lancashire anti-fracking campaigners plan a “peaceful presence” at Buckingham Palace later this month against such a move.

In a letter to the Queen, they wrote: “The decision to refuse planning permission for fracking in Lancashire was local democracy in action. However, the government’s support for shale means that the power has been passed from Lancashire’s elected representatives to the hands of a few, who are interested in aiding the interests of big business, rather than the interests and health of the residents of Lancashire.”

This week it also emerged that shale gas company Ineos’s plans for a rapid expansion of exploratory drilling had fallen flat, after the Telegraph reported that the company was yet to drill a single well or submit one planning application for fracking.

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