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Why the 11th hour ASA u-turn?

By Angela Harbutt
July 30th, 2014 at 4:24 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Quango

For those of you that don’t know, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a quasi-judicial authority, tasked with providing independent scrutiny of the marketing communications industry; specifically ensuring that advertising is not misleading, harmful or offensive.

The Chairman of the ASA is appointed by Advertising Standards Board of Finance (ASBOF) – who then appoints 12 Council members to preside over various cases put before them (frequently by members of the public complaining about advertisements they see). Council members are supposedly selected by the Chairman to reflect a diversity of background and experience. This of course only works if the Chairman does indeed appoint Council members who (a) genuinely reflect a wide range of views and experiences and (b) are completely impartial. The current Chairman is the beleaguered Lord Smith of Finsbury (out-going Chairman of the Environment Agency and former Labour Minister).

So what happens when the advertiser under investigation by the ASA is the Government, and too many of those on the ASA Council have various vested interests in keeping on side with government? Can the ASA realistically be relied upon to be blind status of the advertiser?

Perhaps not…

Back in January 2013 I submitted a complaint to the ASA regarding a Government “quit smoking” advert. The advert stated:

When you smoke the chemicals you inhale cause mutations in your body and mutations are how cancer starts. Every 15 cigarettes you smoke will cause a mutation.

I challenged the categorical statement that “every 15 cigarettes you smoke will cause a mutation”. The statement was based on an exploratory research paper which estimated that every 15 cigarettes smoked caused a mutation. It was based on a sample of one patient (yes one) whose smoking record was unknown and the paper did not take into account other factors that are known to affect mutation rates (e.g. ethnicity, age, environmental (background level of mutagenic chemicals) or lifestyle factors etc). No criticism of the study, it was fascinating insight into where genome research is heading. But the study did not provide evidence to back up the study. Nor did any other study. At best one other study (with a sample size of 21 patients – not much more than the average focus group) showed a range of estimated mutation rates, again with a long list of limitations attached to the estimates in this tiny sample.

Over the past 18 months the ASA has investigated the complaint thoroughly. As reported elsewhere, unsurprisingly, the ASA found on three separate occasions that the government advert was misleading and lacked substantiation. After the Department of Health had challenged the first two findings, the ASA brought in a cancer research expert to impartially review the evidence. Post review, it concluded, for a third time, that the advert was misleading and lacked substantiation. This recommendation was put to the ASA Council.

The ASA Council adjudication today however, overrules the findings of its own 18 month investigation, stating that the complaint is not upheld.  Given the consistency of the ASA rulings during the course of this investigation, why the dramatic last minute u-turn?

I can see only three possible reasons for the ASA Council adjudication.

Firstly the ASA Council were simply bamboozled by the science and talk of “peer-reviewed studies” (do people really not understand what that actually means?), lacking sufficient experience/ knowledge to differentiate between tiny incomplete exploratory studies producing estimates, and definitive studies providing robust evidence

Understandable perhaps, although you might have thought that if Council lacked the required experience it would have deferred to it’s own exhaustive investigation rather than overrule it.

Secondly, this quasi-judicial panel could not bring themselves to rule that government had misled the people, with all the ramifications for the long term future of the ASA (and/or themselves) that such a high-profile ruling might bring.

Or maybe it was ideological, and their views on smoking had a part to play. Perhaps they thought that no matter how unsubstantiated the government claim, the end justifies the means. To admit the government had lied on smoking (which it clearly did) would set back the cause for many years.

May be it was a bit of all of the above.

I do not know the ASA Council views on smoking, nor do I know if they actually had the competence to deal with the research data put before them, but I have do know something on the interests of some of the Council members.

Ray Gallagher, (according to the ASA website) has been advising the government “since 2006″ as “broadcasting Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee”.

Martin Narey is, according to his twitter account, also an advisor to Government, an appointment he is very pleased to have had recently renewed “I’m very pleased to be asked by Nicky Morgan to advise her on Adoption, Social Work Education and DCS support”. (You may also be interested to read his 2009 report on Social Mobility here – Page 68 states “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups consume more cigarettes than more affluent smokers and are more addicted. The strength of the addiction makes it harder for poorer people to quit…”).

Yet another Government advisor seated on the ASA Council is John Mayhead. The ASA website reports “Since 1999 he has been a non-exec at the Department for Transport and also chaired the Government Strategic Marketing Advisory Board which was responsible for the oversight of all Government marketing activity.”

You may be pleased to know that Hamish Pringle is not a Government advisor directly. Unfortunately he is Strategic Advisor at advertising agency 23Red. And guess which organisations feature prominently on 23Red’s client list … “Change for Life”, “Smokefree”, “Public Health England” and … “the Department of Health” (yes really).

He is not the only one whose clients include Government.

ASA Council member Anthony Earle Wilkes is the Managing Director of CETC Ltd, a specialist equal opportunity consultancy. His website states that he provides equality and training to organisations including regulatory authorities, local authorities and Government department & agencies. One wonders just how much the state accounts for his business income. Quite a bit one assumes given the nature of his business.

I could go on, but am waiting for the ASA to send me the “ASA Council Declaration of Interests” (curiously not on the ASA website) – and anyway I think you get the point.

I suppose it is possible that none of those listed above attended or, if they did attend, voted to over-rule the ASA executive on this Government advert – that information is not available to us. It is a regulatory body shrouded in mystery after all. We do not know who voted for and who against? We don’t know if it was a majority decision or unanimous? Or whether anyone abstained due to conflict of interest? All questions that cannot be answered.

And here is the problem, one that Arch Bishop Cranmer stated so well :

It is a question of impartiality, which matters profoundly in political processes where force and influence compete with manipulation and facts: if an organisation with quasi-judicial authority professes to be objective in its investigations, then its senior staff and officers must not only be impartial, they must also be seen to be impartial. There cannot be even the merest hint of a political agenda subverting that professed neutrality or corrupting the overriding commitment to fairness and justice.

Given the many Governmental connections past and present of those seated on the ASA Council, for Council to overrule the recommendations of its own investigation, with no explanation as to why, brings into question the very impartiality of the organisation – and therefore the whole process itself. Can people with such close links to Government really be relied upon to consider complaints against Government fairly? I think not.

At the very least you might expect the ASA adjudication to list members past and present links to Government at the end of the adjudication – for transparency sake at least.

An appeal on the ASA Council adjudication has been lodged with the ASA Independent Reviewer – Sir Hayden Phillips – who may decide to look at it and write a review. But even then his role appears to be only advisory – he can politely ask Council to reconsider its ruling – but it appears that this quasi-regulatory organisation cannot be forced to change its opinion, no matter how compelling the evidence: Given that Council members clearly believe they know better than their own staff, one assumes that they will also consider their views likewise superior to the Independent Reviewer.

This case has ramifications for us all. If the Government is not sanctioned for misleading the public in such a clear cut case, what else might it be allowed to say without fear of sanction? It does not bear thinking about. In the meantime we will wait to see what an appeal brings us – but what’s the betting it will this time next year before any decision is made?

DISCLAIMER: Across 2012 and 2013 Angela worked on the Forest campaign Handsoffourpacks opposing the introduction plain packaging of tobacco. She submitted the complaint to the ASA whilst working on that campaign.

READ ALSO: “At last, the ASA verdict on Forest complaint about DH “mutation” ad

UPDATE: For more information read “Spot the Difference: How the Advertising Standards Authority changed its tune

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Lib Dem disaster – you may as well blame the bird

By Angela Harbutt
May 28th, 2014 at 4:39 pm | 10 Comments | Posted in Europe, European Politics, Leadership, Liberal Democrats, Nannying


A lot has been said (and written) about why UKIP performed so well, and the Lib Dems so disastrously, last week. Much of the Lib Dem analysis has focused on the curse of coalition,  the thorny issue of Europe/migration (where the voters are merely misguided/stupid/plain wrong) and, more latterly, on playing the blame game -it wasn’t the message it was the messenger.

Sorry – it is none of the above. It is the simple fact that people don’t know what the Lib Dems are about …and don’t care about the things the party seems to care about, or simply disagree with them. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but people have had enough of bossy Europe, don’t want a nanny state that treats them like children and couldn’t give a toss about electoral reform.

In opposition, the LibDems were the party of protest – the “none of the above” party. With no one else on the block it had an easy ride.  It possibly didn’t matter that whilst some Lib Dem policies straddled the vast majority of its members – opposition to the Iraq war.. a stance against ID cards.. internationalism (although even there we all have our views on how to define that) – the rest of the policies were a mish-mash … a little bit liberal a little bit social democrat.  But no clarity. No one really knew what the Lib Dems stood for, (apart from “none of the above”) . To overcome this dog’s breakfast, each Lib Dem nuanced the message on any individual policy  to try to weave a cohesive message – inevitably sounding increasingly like political automatons than real people. The “curse of the coalition” has been simply to expose the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a clear and simple proposition. (And no! asking the electorate to reward the party for making the ultimate sacrifice of going into coalition and/or for putting a stop on some Tory policies wont cut it)

Well now there is a new kid on the block. UKIP – which has an extra-ordinarily clear and simple message and (potentially devastating news for Lib Dems) it extends well beyond Europe and immigration.

Jeremy Brown summed it up pretty well on Question Time :

” …When it comes to globalisation our best prospects for being successful as a country are to be outward looking and internationalist, but I think there is a perfectly legitimate opposite view, and that is the view that UKIP put forward.

But that is not just what UKIP represent. And I think that the political classes and the media elite need to understand the state of mind of a lot of people, particularly beyond London, who are voting for UKIP… Now some of them may be racist or sexist. I am sure some of them are.

But I think some of them object to being told the whole time by that elite, what they should eat, what they should drink, what they should say, what they should believe in. And I think Nigel Farage for quite a lot of those people is just a big two fingers stuck up to what they feel is a hectoring out of touch elite. Now they may be unreasonable, they may be angry beyond the point they should be, but I think politicians in the other parties need to spend a little bit of time reflecting if there is a protest vote, why people are wanting to protest, and not just bandy all those people as being racist or what ever it might be.”

Actually I am not sure that UKIP opposes being “internationalist and outward looking” – they have a different solution. And to be honest I don’t agree that people are “angry beyond the point they should be” – I think the voters have a right to be bloody angry – and show it. But Jeremy is right that the UKIP rise much much more than being anti-EU.

Dig below the media caricature of UKIP and the message is plain and simple (and potentially rather attractive) – Return more power to an accountable Westminster – and deliver a Westminster that will interfere less. Of course there are some pretty unsavoury characters within UKIP and some rather unpleasant utterances from time to time. But the party is very young and voters (who are not as stupid as the elite seem to think) are willing to look past their mistakes in the belief that something exciting, clear and refreshingly straight-talking is being formed.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in any shape or form they need to stop being the party of “stop” or “none of the above” and find an equally clear, simple and human message that voters understand – and just to be clear …ideally one that a reasonable number of voters agree with and care about.

That is not a revelation. Many have been saying the same thing for some considerable time. The question is how to get to that point.

I think it is simple. For too long the Liberal Democrat party has been a party of fudge, priding itself on being a party of process, committees and sub-committees seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is the very heart of the problem. There are too many people with a slice of power but no accountability. Nick may be called leader – but he is in effect little more than the chief spokesperson – the face of the party – you may as well blame the bird as the leader for the disastrous results last week. As for conference… the party declares itself democratic but denies the vast majority of Lib Dem members the opportunity to vote on policy . That is not democratic that is elitist. You have to be one of the “in-crowd” to obtain a magical voting card – and have the means and opportunity to up-sticks and get to some far flung place to exercise that right.

And it is the elitism that permeates the very heart of the Lib Dems that sucks. We have bumbled along allowing too many elites on too many committees to exert power without any responsibility. They rejoice in getting one over on the leadership at conference- even when that message is out of kilter with the rest of the party, or indeed the wider voting public. And if they can get conference to pass a motion to form another panel or sub-committee to investigate x y or z policy, providing they can fill it with their buddies, they are in clover.

The Lib Dems has become a party run by smug middle classes who think they know best on everything. Better than the leadership, better than the constituents our MPs are supposed to serve.  If we allow the leadership to be batted from pillar to post and forced into pledges and promises they don’t agree with or cant deliver by countless numbers of committees and policy groups, voted through by a minority of activists at the seaside, we should not be surprised that the result is a disjointed message, political double-speak and a hopeless mass of contradictions. We are a party of freedom of speech but voted in favour of Leveson’s press restrictions (we hate Murdoch). We are the party who says “trust in people” but support the plain packaging of cigarettes and appear to want a fizzy drinks tax ( we only “trust in people” when they agree with us).  We want to champion “hard working” people – but heaven forbid that those people are sufficiently successful in their endeavours that they become rich because we will tax them to hell and back (basically we all work in the public sector).

While the Lib Dems play introspective sixth form politics, UKIP is getting on with the business of telling people what it stands for. Maybe that is because the smoking, drinking, straight-talking leader of UKIP is actually allowed to lead – not just be a figurehead. I am sure that Nick will say he has more power than that… perhaps… but not much.

Egos need to be crushed. Committees slashed. Decision making on policy and manifesto returned to those who are accountable. A camel is a horse designed by committee – and at the moment we are one sick-looking camel.

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Barlow Is Not To Blame!

By Sara Scarlett
May 13th, 2014 at 11:35 am | No Comments | Posted in Economics, Tax, UK Politics

I can’t quite get my head around the outrage over the Gary Barlow tax avoidance (note: not tax evasion) story. Margaret Hodge MP has actually suggested that he should give back his OBE! What a joke!

Let us be under no illusions. Loopholes exist because politicians put them there. Holes in the tax code are created by politicians and politicians alone. Politicians are fully responsible for them and could get rid of them if they wanted to.

For politicians to heap all the blame on Barlow is incredulous. The thing about loopholes is this: why would anyone pay more tax than the tax code says they are legally obliged to? Shouldn’t we be more outraged by the politicians who have been poking holes in the tax code for years? The more complex and convoluted the tax code becomes the more it becomes a Swiss Cheese that is easy for the rich to navigate – they can afford expensive accountants – but a nightmare for individuals and small companies.

The outrage directed at Barlow is a very sad thing because it is a distraction from a proper discussion about tax code reform and the people who are responsible for the disastrous state the tax code is in.

If Baristas Were Like the RMT…

By Sara Scarlett
March 14th, 2014 at 11:23 am | No Comments | Posted in Economics

Mark Steel fundamentally fails to understand how competition works, or in that regard where Bob Crow got his power from – the absence of competition in London for fast travel.

Suppose as Mark wishes the Pret-A-Manger and Starbucks baristas organised like the RMT, shutting down their respective chains on the public grounds that the steamed milk dispensers represented a serious health and safety threat to their members, while negotiating behind the scenes for more pay and pensions. Their employers might give in from time to time, and wages would rise.

Their employers would also stop investing in new shops. Practically because free cash was now going into current staff benefits and pragmatically as their London outfits were now less cost effective than stores elsewhere. Why invest in jobs in London if you can make better returns for shareholders investing in Birmingham or France? Prices in turn, in London would rise, leading to customer defections to Costa Coffee and Eat. That is those customers prepared to remain loyal despite the shops being closed for large parts of the year.

In time there would closures and headcount reductions. Presumably followed by more strikes and vocal denunciations of the boss class on the BBC. Campaigns would be launched urging consumers to pay more for their coffee and sandwiches in solidarity with staff already earning 2-3 times what they do. The campaigns would be ignored. Labour MPs would claim the Government has betrayed the barista community leading to the destruction of a once great British service industry.

On the Underground meanwhile none of these levers are available. Buses are not a practical alternative for many routes, nor do they have capacity to cope with the increase in trade during a network strike. Cars and taxis are even less useful, the conflation of all three leading to gridlock. In the long-run automation is an alternative to over-paid staff.

Bob Crow’s success then was to note the power imbalance between tube workers and their customers and extract rent from them for as long as possible before the inevitable, much like a mafia boss pending the end of prohibition.

That model happily cannot work in many areas of life, not even many public services, where alternatives can exist. What does work is what most of the working world has which is the free movement of labour from bad employers to good, and the facility to be rewarded for the effort you make using the skills you have, through negotiation and reason, and without strife.

The EU Condemns Drone Strikes

By Sara Scarlett
March 1st, 2014 at 6:33 am | 4 Comments | Posted in EU

Excellent news from the EU!

European Union Members of Parliament condemned the use of drones in targeted killings in a vote of 534 to 49. The vote proposing a ban referred to the drone strikes as “unlawful.”

Not just a victory but a landslide victory.

I once heard drone strikes described as ‘surgical.’ They are the exact opposite. They are notoriously  imprecise, killing nine innocent civilians for every one ‘bad guy.’ The callous disregard of human life in affected areas can only serve to breed contempt and make us less safe. If the powers that be ever update the Geneva Conventions, I hope this type of warfare is explicitly acknowledged and condemned.