Why the ASA, not OfCom should replaced the PCC

Why the ASA, not OfCom should replaced the PCC

We all know that the Press Complaints Commission‘s days are number. The Leveson Inquiry will see to that. But who should take on its mantle? Are we really headed for a situation where press complaints are settled by the courts, or not settled at all — which would be a massive step backwards — or should OfCom, which regulates broadcast media, step in to fill the gap.

Actually, for my money — and, as a taxpayer, it is my money — it should be the Advertising Standards Authority who gets the job.

Here’s why.

Today, the ASA published the latest in a long running line of proactive research. You can read about it here BBC News – What is it that really offends people about adverts?, or in full on the ASA’s site here: ASA Harm and offence report. If you’re an advertiser, you might also like to take a gander through their archives, which include The public’s perception of advertising – February 2002, a seminal study which has been one of the foundations of my career and is why, when I was looking after it, NHS advertising across the West Midlands took the exception step of using humour and went on to the even more exceptional step of demonstrating measurable results.

What’s really interesting and important about the latest ASA report is not the conclusions it comes to, though they are highly apposite, but the fact they ran the survey at all. The rationale behind going out to the public to ask what they think is that most people who are offended will never actually bother to complain, and those that do complain may be unrepresentative.

Revolutionary?

For an organisation which exists to investigate complaints, it is. The Press Complaints Commission and OfCom are entirely reactive in determining what is and is not permitted. OfCom has a measure of independence, but the PCC is run by newspapers, and represents a consensus not of what the public is prepared to put up with, or even the courts, but what newspapers believe to be fair journalism. In a recent landmark ruling, for example, the PCC (see link below) ruled that the Independent was entirely justified in using subterfuge (also spelled ‘lying’) to get a story they couldn’t otherwise have got, even though no crime was proved as a result.

As a nation, do we really believe that it’s ok to lie your way into someone’s life or business for the purpose of stitching them up? Normally we call this a confidence trick. Somehow, newspaper editors seem to think not only that it’s ok, but that it’s their duty.

I love the Independent. It’s stuck to its guns over many years and very rarely gets embroiled in this kind of nonsense. But the ‘victory’ they report below is just another nail in the coffin of self-regulation.

There’s another reason why I think the ASA is the right body for the job: it has teeth.

Back in the days of Swine Flu, when I was putting together a campaign that formed the basis of one of the national campaigns, I spent a lot of time working through exactly what the right message was with senior public health doctors. We needed to get the facts absolutely right, because we knew we only had one go at it. One of the things I learned was that just washing things with soapy water was enough to kill residual H1N1 virus.

I was a bit surprised, then, a couple of years later to see a big TV ad for Vanish (a product I’ve known and used for years) claiming that ordinary washing powders couldn’t kill the flue virus, but Vanish could. I emailed the ASA. I got a very prompt reply saying  they would look into it. Not so long afterwards, I got a letter telling me that Vanish had agreed not to show the ad again in that form. Job done.

With the ASA, this is not unusual. They don’t go on volume of complaints — otherwise it would be a popularity contest — but when the complaint is valid, they act, and the advertisers comply. What’s more, when they do comply, they do it seriously, even if that means a lot of money to reshoot the ads or in some cases advertise a correction. Which is why, by and large, advertising in this country is largely truthful, and provably so.

Contrast with the PCC. If there ever is an adjudication against the paper, the apology gets published on some distant page very small. Technically it should be with equal prominence, but, somehow, that never really seems to happen. Witness the apology given to Vince Cable by the Daily Telegraph for its unacceptable subterfuge against him. Did you see it? Very few people did, but the original story was in all the papers for weeks.

What’s more, journalists know that they will usually get away with it. Going to the PCC is a real hassle, takes a long time, and, in most cases, if the adjudication is in your favour, it just refreshes the story. If it isn’t, expect exultant headlines in the newspaper, as below. This must be the only kind of confidential complaints process which results in public humiliation for the complainant if the panel decides that the paper was not sufficiently in breach to be forced to apologise.

The ASA’s proactive stance on finding out what really offends people, its simple, confidential and sure-handed way of dealing with complaints, and the very real business penalties suffered by adverts which are in violation are all reasons why it is such a respected body. Advertisers like it as well — it means their competitors can’t scoop them by making outlandish, unproveable claims. If you’re a small advertiser, their copy advice line will tell you over the phone whether you’re allowed to run the ad you want (which is how we got to run “Don’t be a prat” as a youth alcohol ad in Walsall, even though the bus company originally wanted to reject it for fear it might offend). ASA research is also invaluable, and it’s free.

Right now the newspaper industry is proposing a ‘son of the PCC’ with editors sitting on the panel. The PCC didn’t work, and a watered down version will work even less. Politicians are proposing fines of up to a million. Great for the Murdoch press, as it will limit the chances they’ll be sued for even greater amounts. If you’re the Ross Gazette, on the other hand, even a comparatively trivial penalty could see you pulled under. The ASA doesn’t need million pound fines, because everyone knows that they will get you, so it isn’t worth running deliberately misleading ads. The ASA’s rulings are usually accepted by everyone, because they make sense, based on a very simple, very clear code (contrast with the 10pt print poster that the PCC has to provide, and takes a lawyer to interpret). The ASA knows that they make sense, because it consistently commissions research into what people who don’t complain actually think.

Naturally, it’s a lot easier to make someone withdraw an advertisement than to roll back a story from a newspaper. It isn’t the newspaper which reported it, but all the other newspapers which reported that paper reporting it which do the damage. But an ASA type approach, where, once a story was ruled to be in breach, every organ that covered it would be forced to issue an apology, whether they used the defence of ‘we were only reporting that another paper had said…’ or not, would very quickly clean things up.

Newspapers have nothing to fear from a consistent and fair hard-touch regulator which rigorously applied the same standards all the time. Yes, it would hold back the Independent from its little adventure with Bell Pottinger, but, then, the Independent wouldn’t be competing with the salacious gossip which flowed from the hacked phones of celebrities. A level playing field benefits everyone.

Of course, OfCom could claim that it is a similar type of operator, but it isn’t. OfCom works with a very few high profile organisations, all of which are licensed because without a license, they can’t broadcast. Print journalism isn’t licensed, and it is geographically dispersed and highly diverse. Back when Romeike and Curtice still published the physical Editors books listing all the print and broadcast publishers in the UK, the broadcast section was one very thin volume. Print was four very thick volumes. This is exactly analogous to advertising, where there are many thousands of outlets currently covered by the ASA.

My belief is ASA could do the job, and OfCom can’t.

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