Close-Up: Profile - Outspoken peer leads ASA fight for recognition

Chris Smith, the new Advertising Standards Authority chairman, aims to raise public awareness of the ad body.

When Chris Smith was interviewed for the position of chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, he didn't pull his punches. Asked how he saw the challenges facing the ASA, the former culture secretary ventured that the public were no longer aware it was the body responsible for ensuring advertising was "legal, decent, honest and truthful".

It might have been a risky strategy for landing a job he really wanted after being approached by headhunters, but it worked. The Advertising Standards Board of Finance, which also interviewed a handful of others on a shortlist, seemed to accept his criticism - and offered him the £120,000-a-year, three-day-a-week job.

Lord Smith's point was proved by a storm in a Westminster teacup over his new post. The Tory Opposition put him at the top of a list of 20 "Labour Quangocrats" appointed by the Government to head outside bodies, who were "costing taxpayers" a total of £300,000 a year. But the Tory attack was badly flawed. Smith was appointed by Asbof, not the Government - and the ASA is funded by the industry, not the public purse.

Smith shrugged off the political pointscoring but allowed himself a chuckle: if the Tories don't know how the ASA works, how can the public? So a drive to raise the authority's profile will be close to the top of his agenda when he succeeds Lord Borrie next July.

"I think the public do not nowadays know as much about the ASA's role and purpose as perhaps it did ten years ago," Smith says. "In the days of 'legal, decent, truthful, honest', people knew there was a body called the ASA that kept advertising honest. Putting the ASA more on the map in the public mind would give them a greater confidence in the world of advertising."

The ASA will be catapulted front of mind more quickly than Smith likely expected when he took the job. The body's immediate challenge will be to police the Ofcom junk-food regulations, which many in the media see as Draconian.

Smith opposes a ban to combat Britain's child "obesity crisis" and acknowledges the growing tendency to blame advertising for society's ills. He says: "When you have a genuine issue like obesity among children, the right policy response is to look at a whole range of different issues, ranging from exercise to what they watch on TV. Advertising is part of the picture. But simply to focus on advertising ignores an awful lot else.

"I am not particularly in favour of blanket bans. It's not terribly sensible public policy to assume that stopping ads for junk food would solve our obesity problem."

Smith accepts the ASA will have some tricky decisions to make not just on food, but other sensitive issues including alcohol and ads deemed offensive by some faith groups. "They can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is dangerous for anyone to establish rules that try and deal with every eventuality," he says.

His second priority will be to ensure the regulatory regime keeps pace with a fast-changing ad world. "The internet poses an extra challenge," he says. Issues include the boundaries between advertising and editorial, whether the system can influence paid-for ads that do not originate in the UK (currently outside the scope of the industry's code), and whether there should be a kitemarking or "trusted operator" scheme to give greater confidence in ads on the web. He suspects it won't be possible to solve all the problems, but hopes the internet can be made a better environment for consumers.

Smith also wants to use his new perch to show that the self-regulatory system works. Although seen as being on the Labour soft left, he does not share the instincts of some like-minded colleagues for greater government intervention. "The ASA is accepted by the industry, works in the interests of the public and has a good record of success."

Smith won plaudits from MPs from all parties for putting Britain's creative industries on the map in his four years as culture secretary. But some MPs feel the early momentum created after he set up a taskforce has been lost.

He believes that, in a competitive global economy, the industries cannot rest on their laurels: "I have a lot of respect for the UK ad industry. It is among the most creative in the world. You only have to compare its quality in terms of the wit, interest and ingenuity with that in, say, America. Advertising abroad can seem leaden by comparison.

"The nature of the industry means having to change. It is a challenging time. But I see no prospect of the ad industry folding its tents and going away. We are going to need it for centuries to come."

In his political career, Smith was perhaps best known for being the first MP to come out as openly gay in 1984, the year after he became MP for Islington South and Finsbury. He did so to show it was as possible for a gay person to contribute to society as anyone else. Last year, with the same motive in mind, he admitted he had been HIV-positive for 17 years.

He is admired at Westminster for that openness - and also for having an independent mind. Although an early supporter of Tony Blair in 1994, he was never in the Blair inner circle. That is probably why he failed to win the post of health secretary in 1997, even though he had shadowed the post in opposition, and why he was sacked in 2001 to make way for fresh blood. Smith admits his disappointment. But he would have resigned from the Cabinet in 2003 to oppose the Iraq war, to which he led the Labour opposition and on which his judgment has been vindicated by events.

He stood down as an MP last year, becoming Lord Smith of Finsbury. He will resign other outside jobs as an advisor to Walt Disney and chairman of Classic FM's consumer panel when he joins the ASA, but will continue to work half-a- week as the director of the Clore Leadership Programme, which boosts the management and leadership skills of people in the arts.

Smith was never a close ally of Gordon Brown, with whom he had some spectacular rows over policy. But the wounds seem to have healed, and Smith endorses the Chancellor as the right man to succeed Blair next year. "He is head and shoulders above any other candidate," he says.

With the Tory peer Baroness Buscombe taking over as the chief of the Advertising Association and Smith at the ASA's helm, the ad industry should have the clout it will need in the corridors of power to head off the growing demands for bans and restrictions.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 55
Lives: Islington, London
Family: Partner Dorien Jabri (civil partnership since 21 July)
Favourite ad: Current - radio commercial for Mercedes; all-time - John
Smith's bitter
Describe yourself in three words: Intelligent, fair, integrity
Greatest extravagance: Going out for a really expensive meal
Living person you most admire: Nelson Mandela
Motto: Do your best

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