Opinion: Free airtime would clean up US politics

LONDON, United Kingdom — In the countdown to America's mid-term elections, some of the country's news broadcasters have been running stories about the huge amounts of money being poured into the campaigns of candidates, especially Republican candidates.

These news items focus on the undisclosed sources of funds used to pay for political ads on TV and radio, hinting that some of the money may be coming from illegal foreign donations or other questionable sources. The implication is that the political process is being corrupted by unaccountable rivers of money.

What these news broadcasts don't mention is that the biggest cause of corruption of American politics is the broadcasters themselves, who make tons of money from selling political ads.

The need to raise huge sums to pay for political ads on TV and radio has made America's elected officials indebted to all sorts of interests, from labor unions to health insurers. The only exceptions to this deplorable situation is the equally deplorable practice of zillionaire candidates trying to buy their own elections.

So here's a two-step plan to give the vote back to the people instead of the special interests: Ban paid political ads on broadcasts. And require broadcasters to give all parties free air time for political ads. It's as simple as that.

I have asked a number of American politicians over the years what they think of this suggestion, and they all say it's brilliant, and would do more than anything else to clean up American politics.

Of course if you ask the commercial broadcasters, they will give you a starkly different answer: that it would be a violation of free speech. But it's not free speech. It's the most expensive speech in the world.

The need to pay for political ads on broadcasts means it takes a mountain of money to run for office in America. Just look at what it has done to our election process. In 1932, it cost the Democratic National committee less than $3 million to elect Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt president of the United States. Even allowing for inflation, that's only a tiny fraction of what it costs now to win just one seat in the U.S. Senate.

How did the world's proudest democracy get itself into such a bind? Don Hewitt, the late CBS News executive says it all began with the famous 1960 television debate between Richard Nixon and John. F. Kennedy, which he produced and directed:

“That was the night the politicians looked at television and said, 'Those guys are the only way to run for office.' And we looked at them and said, 'These guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.' And from that moment on, the number one qualification in the world's greatest democracy is the ability to raise money for television time. Which virtually no candidate for public office can do without being in bed with, or at least in the pocket of, one or more special interests.”

What makes this unholy alliance between broadcasters, politicians and special interests even more unfair and unjustifiable is the fact that the broadcasters own one of the country's most limited and powerful assets — the frequencies available for broadcasting. These frequencies are so valuable they are virtually a license to print money.

The Federal Communications Commission used to require that stations which were granted a license to broadcast must provide a public service in addition to making bags of money on entertainment. That meant that most stations offered a healthy menu of real news and public affairs programs. Nowadays, a largely toothless F.C.C. lets them they get away with airing junk news, or no news at all.

If the broadcasters refuse to provide a real news service, the public could at least ask that they stop charging for the political ads that have debased American elections.

After all, the United States is a glaring exception to the rule followed by most other major democracies. Paid political ads on TV and radio are banned here in Britain and many other European countries because they are seen to be unfair. Most western European countries allocate free air time to political parties during election campaigns. Britain also has rules that outlaw the attack ads and smear tactics that are so common in American campaigns.

Could such a system work in the United States? Of course it could. But who would finance the campaigns of candidates who had the nerve to promise the voters that if they were elected, they would ban paid political ads on broadcasts and give free air time to all parties?