What's offensive, for God's sake?

There will be two billboards in London this month – at Angel and in Hammersmith – displaying the slogan of the British Humanist Association Census Campaign: “If you’re not religious, for god’s sake say so”. Other than online, those two billboards are the only place you are likely to see that slogan, which this week should have been visible on railway stations and on the sides of buses in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff, Exeter and other towns and cities across England and Wales.
For God's Sake Humanist poster
The hundreds of other posters supposed to be appearing across the country this week have been prevented from appearing in case they cause offence.

Bus posters with the phrase “for God’s Sake” were turned down by the owners of the space on buses because of the advice of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) that, under 4.1 of its code, the phrase “for God’s sake” had the potential to cause “widespread” and “serious” offence. We had to amend the slogan to get the bus posters out there.

Posters bearing the slogan intended for railway stations were rejected by the owners of the space for same reason, but the companies owning the space went further and said that, in any case, they didn’t want to take adverts relating to religion. So, we were allowed no posters at railway stations at all.

This sorry episode raises two serious questions about advertising in a free society.

Firstly, how is offence to be measured? We received emails at the office from Christians who weren’t offended by our slogan and at least two Christians I discussed the issue with on radio said the same thing. On what grounds did CAP believe that offence at our slogan would be “widespread”? And what would make that offence – taken in response to a common idiomatic phrase as thoroughly secularised as Christmas – so “serious”? And why did the owners of the railway station spaces shy away from our posters when posters from the Trinitarian Bible Society saying that anyone who doesn’t believe in god is a “fool” are a perennial part of my daily commute? Is offence only serious if people who believe in a god feel it?

The second question is, although we all know that the ASA is responsible for dealing with complaints about adverts once they are up, who is responsible for deciding whether an advert gets up in the first place?

Especially in an area as sensitive as censorship, simple principles of the rule of law would demand that any regulations should be clear, accessible and universally applied and that, in the event of a decision being made, it is clear who has made it, why they have, and how it can be appealed. In our situation, this was all impossible. Both parties – CAP and the owners of the advertising space – were able to place responsibility for the censorship of the adverts on the other.

CAP advised that our adverts could break the code. Owners of the advertising space said they would not take adverts that CAP had advised could break the code. We could not appeal against the advice of CAP because it is non-binding and CAP said it was entirely up to the owners of the space whether to take our adverts. The owners of the space said they would not go against advice from CAP. We could not appeal against them because they are commercial interests perfectly free to refuse any adverts they care to.

If public advertising space becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, there is every reason to fear that what we see will be only what unaccountable and (naturally) offence-shy commercial interests will allow us to see. In this situation, a more suitable role for a regulator than sniffing out offensive potential would be to advance and guarantee free expression against such interests, for all our sakes.

Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association