1 Mar 2012

Chutzpah or something for the Electoral Commission?

You’ve got to hand it to Mike Olley, for sheer chutzpah. And as an example of some of the things our politicians get up to. He’s one of the contenders for the Labour nomination for the new police commissioner job in the West Midlands, the biggest force outside London.

Mr Olley is a former Birmingham councillor who runs the Broad Street Business Improvement District in Birmingham.  He also writes a weekly political column for the Birmingham Mail. As I was driving down the M5 the other day, round the western side of Birmingham, I noticed a huge poster at the side of the motorway, advertising Mr Olley’s political column in the Mail.

Crikey, I thought, he’s campaigning publicly for the PCC job already.  And spending big money. It’s not often you see a newspaper political column advertised with such prominence, if at all.  And the poster was huge.  Indeed here’s a picture of a similar one taken from Mr Olley’s own website.

I’ve since learned that it was a digital poster put up by a firm called Scarlet Motion, run by a friend of Mike Olley called John O’Hara.  And Mr Olley tells me that he himself used to work in advertising.  The poster appears in bursts for a few seconds every now and then.  And there are similar sites elsewhere in Birmingham, another site next to the M5; one by the M6; and one at the famous Fiveways interchange in the city.

Indeed if you look at Scarlet Motion’s website you can see live what posters they’ve got up right now, and how they change regularly.

If you watch it won’t be long before you see the Olley posters I’m talking about. The intriguing question is how the Olley poster campaign came about.  The commercial cost of such prominent sites, viewed by tens of thousands of motorists each day, would surely be many thousands of pounds.

Mike Olley says he doesn’t know how much the Birmingham Mail paid Scarlet Motion for the digital posters – or whether they paid them anything at all.  And Mr Olley admits he doesn’t know whether any other Mail columnists are advertised in this way. I have put in a call to the Mail for their version of events, and sent them an email.

The question is whether John O’Hara and Scarlet Motion have simply given Mr Olley a free boost for his campaign, a huge publicity advantage over his rivals for the West Midlands PCC job. There are another eight months before the police commissioner elections, and Mike Olley has yet to be chosen as Labour candidate.

But it won’t be long, surely, before the Electoral Commission will take an interest in what Mr Olley and his friends are doing, and asking whether these digital posters should count towards his campaign donations and funding.  At least they ought to take such an interest.

But right now the Home Office has yet to announce what the precise campaign spending limits and rules will be. And as a budding police commissioner, Mr Olley will, of course, be keen not to break any rules or laws. And, as an ITN colleague has just suggested to me, it’s also an interesting issue in the light of the Leveson inquiry into relatons between the media and the police.

The deadline for Labour PCC nominations was midnight yesterday (29 February) and Mr Olley seems to be one of four contenders in the West Midlands (read my previous post on this).

UPDATE: 6pm, Thursday

I’ve just spoken to a senior figure in the marketing department at the Birmingham Mail who tells me that the Mike Olley posters have nothing to do with the newspaper, even though they advertise his column in the paper.

“We’ve not purchased them,” I was told.  “He’s purchased them himself.”

The paper was not involved in commissioning them, I was told.  Nor does the paper ever buy such lavish advertising for its columnists.

The first thing the newspaper knew about the digital posters was when they saw them on the screens around the city.  I was told that when somebody from the newspaper’s accounts department saw the posters they even queried the cost internally.  The accounts person was reassured by the marketing department that the cost was not being met by the paper in any way.

But Mr Olley has denied he paid for the posters.

It’s all very odd

Mike Olley has just told me again that he didn’t buy the posters, though he admits he arranged for them to be displayed. And he insists that the artwork for the posters was approved by the Birmingham Mail.

“I assumed the paper paid for it,” he says. “I sent them in and I was told they were OK.”
And Olley concedes that he won’t be able to get away with his posters for much longer because of rules on election funding and expenses.

“When the rules do kick in, which is soon, those boards will have to come down. I think it will be inappropriate.”

Olley also accepts that the posters will have given him a big boast in the West Midlands in terms of recognition.

“It’s great for me, but it can’t carry on,” he says.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick