CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/NEWSPAPERS - Should copies sold abroad be subject to the same ABC rules?

Finding a copy of the Daily Mail on a foreign beach is almost easier than tracking down a copy in Soho but, this week, its publisher, Associated Newspapers, was on alert after its rival Express Newspapers revealed a steep rise in foreign sales.

Although not enough to knock the Mail off its top spot, Richard Desmond's company almost doubled the 39,957 copies of the Daily Express sold abroad in July 2001 to 65,323 copies sold in the same month this year - largely due to the purchase of three new printing plants in popular holiday destinations churning out overseas copies. The Daily Mail sold 93,255.

It was the Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade who first questioned whether the increased number of foreign newspaper sales should be taken at face value, considering the method of auditing such sales is vastly different from how UK volumes are appraised.

The Express is not the only publication to have benefited dramatically from foreign sales. The Daily Telegraph reported foreign sales up around 25 per cent to 47,848 in July 2002. The Guardian's were up from 42,000 in July 2001 to 43,269.

Greenslade highlighted the different rules that apply to UK and foreign-sold copies. In the UK, bulk sales are separated from papers sold at full price, but this is not the case abroad. Abroad, a publisher can sell its papers in bulk to a distributor and submit that number to the ABC. There is no way of verifying whether all of the copies a publisher claims it sold abroad are actually bought.

The MediaCom group press director and ABC council member, Steve Goodman, agrees that the issue needs to be confronted in the UK, but says there are important considerations to bear in mind. he says: "Circulations abroad in summer are always heightened, and this will also increase with the number of new printing plants that have been opened this year. But those summer circulations abroad will always take a dip when people return from their holidays."

Nevertheless, he claims the issue will probably be discussed at the next ABC council meeting. "Publishers don't have to declare their foreign sales but, perhaps now there seems to be increasing focus on them, we will see a change in how they are audited, Goodman says.

ABC's director of newspapers and magazines, Martyn Gates, acknowledges the differences in the auditing process and claims that because the organisation is run and paid for by both sides of the industry, both buying and selling, it will be up to them to decide whether the system changes.

"There is no room for manipulation of those foreign publishers' figures. Any change in the rules would not be instigated by the ABC, but by those who pay for it, he says. And he rejects Greenslade's claims that publishers are deliberately piling papers high on beaches simply to top up their overall circulation figures.

An Express spokeswoman said the reason for the increase in foreign sales was a combination of new printing plants that allowed for same-day reading in several holiday destinations, and the increased number of summer holidaymakers.

"We reject claims of manipulation, but would welcome any moves for a more robust auditing system for foreign sales, she said.

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