CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COUNTRYSIDE POSTER CAMPAIGN - Ads that seek to protect the countryside have confused poster firms

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin. Here is a Halloween mystery story.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin. Here is a Halloween mystery story.

It's not about ghosts or ghoulies. Just a charity, its agency, a mysterious media independent, some poster companies and an advertising ban that's as difficult to pin down as the fruit in an apple-bobbing contest.

Did the ban ever exist? Yes, the Council for the Protection of Rural England claims, which alleges that its campaign opposing Government plans to allow more billboards in rural areas has been stymied. No, say the poster companies that the CPRE accuses of censorship over their alleged refusal to carry the ads (Campaign, last week).

The poster companies named by the CPRE on Monday continue to insist they have no knowledge of such a ban. In fact, Francis Goodwin, the joint managing director for sales and marketing at Maiden Outdoor, is adamant that nobody at the company has spoken to a CPRE representative and that Maiden would be happy to put the advertising on its sites.

But let's begin at the beginning. The CPRE initially identified the offending companies as JCDecaux, its Mills & Allen subsidiary, Maiden Outdoor and Freight Media, a small operation specialising in bus-side and lorry advertising.

Tony Burton, the CPRE's assistant director, denounced the companies as having stepped on a slippery slope by refusing its ads and intimated that his organisation might take legal advice about whether their 'ban' was lawful.

However, the CPRE has provoked bewilderment across the poster industry.

For one thing, lawyers believe that a ban, if it exists, would be reasonable.

'The poster companies would all have legitimate reasons for not taking the business,' Stephen Hornsby, a competition specialist at the Simkins Partnership law firm, explains.

For another, it goes against the grain for poster contractors to turn away anybody's cash. 'Our salespeople are incentivised to make money, so their first instinct would be to take the CPRE's ads,' an industry source says. 'The only reason we'd turn it down is if the money wasn't enough or the sites the CPRE wanted had already been sold.'

As it is, the CPRE campaign at the centre of the dispute could itself turn out to be a red herring.

Iain McLennan, the director of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Great Britain, certainly thinks so. The new legislation on billboard advertising is intended only to correct anomalies in the old and there will be no dilution of local planning authority powers, he says.

Senior poster company executives are contemptuous of CPRE suggestions that the countryside would be turned into a poster free-for-all. 'Just look at the economics,' one says. 'Are we really likely to put billboards in places where only a handful of people will see them? And do we really want to spoil the rural areas where many of us in the industry live?'

David Pugh, Maiden's other joint managing director for sales and marketing, says: 'Advertisers aren't interested in small audiences on country roads and we certainly don't want the service costs involved in having billboards there. I don't know what the CPRE's agenda is, but it's being very annoying.'

Back to Burton. Maiden had declared itself willing to take the CPRE's advertising. Interesting, Burton comments, it must have changed its position.

But how come nobody at the poster companies seemed to know anything about approaches from the CPRE? That, Burton explains, was because it had all been done by the CPRE's agency, Target Direct Marketing in Cheltenham.

Over to Ray Clark, Target's client service director. All negotiations had been handled by a media independent, he claims. Could he tell Campaign its name? Sorry. The media independent would neither reveal its identity nor give interviews for fear of jeopardising future relations with media owners.

But did he have any letters from the poster companies confirming the existence of their ban? Sorry, it was all done via e-mail. Could he let us see copies of the e-mails? Sorry, that would identify the media independent.

Did Clark realise how all this was beginning to look? 'Yes, I can see why it looks like a scam. But it's certainly not a publicity stunt,' he says.