CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY - The ASA appointing a QC as chairman is not a surprise, Francesca Newland writes

Like it or not, British society and business are becoming increasingly shaped by litigation. So it follows that Lord Borrie, the new chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, is a QC.

Like it or not, British society and business are becoming increasingly shaped by litigation. So it follows that Lord Borrie, the new chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, is a QC.

Philip Circus, the former legal affairs director of the IPA, calls the appointment a 'volte face', although he is quick to add that he thinks Borrie will be the perfect chairman.

The reason that Circus, now the director of legal affairs at the Institute of Sales Promotion, is interested in Borrie's legal background is that three years ago he proposed to the ASA that its chairman should be a lawyer. He says: 'When I suggested it there was a storm of protest. I felt it was important because procedures were becoming increasingly subject to judicial review.'

The opposition to Circus' proposal centred on a feeling that a legal background could impede rather than understand and support a creative industry. Circus says: 'One member of the ASA council wrote at that time that a lawyer would be totally inappropriate to head the ASA because he would have to have it explained what cornflakes are.'

Hugh Burkitt, a member of the ASA council, remembers why it was felt three years ago that a lawyer would be inappropriate: 'The ASA does not operate according to laws, but to the British Code of Advertising Practise. It is not written as law but as a set of principals that can be widely interpreted.

'It has to be true to the spirit of the codes and we try to apply common sense, but lawyers can sometimes be pedantic about the interpretation of the law.'

Burkitt also believes that there has to be an instinctive understanding of the code, rather than a legal one: 'The ASA tries to answer a difficult question: is an ad truthful? Answering that is not simply a case of just holding it up to a written piece of law. An ad can be untruthful by omission or by implication. You have to make a rounded judgment.'

So why the change of heart? Circus and Burkitt both say the main reason is that Britain has become more litigious. 'The number of appeals has been steadily growing over the past five or six years. Successful corporations are very aggressive. Certain companies are only too willing to dive in,' Burkitt says.

Whatever the past divisions on lawyers, commentators are agreed that Borrie is the best man for the post. In fact, Circus thinks that he's the best chairman ever elected.

He does have an impressive pedigree: a former president of the Institute of Trading Standards; chairman of the Direct Marketing Authority; a former member of the council of the Consumers' Association; a Labour peer, and a former director-general of the Office of Fair Trading. The latter post exposed Borrie to the workings of the ASA.

Lord Rodgers, the ASA's outgoing chairman, said of the appointment: 'I shall be leaving the ASA in very good hands. I am delighted that Gordon Borrie is taking over.' His quote appears to reflect informed opinion. Borrie is, it seems, the right lawyer for the job.





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