Spotlight on: The ABC: Have wily publishing tactics eroded the ABC’s authority? ?authority? - Are ABC regulations failing to cope with the wars over prices, Alasdair Reid asks

There are times when it can be dangerous being the referee. It is no surprise to find the Times and the Daily Telegraph at each other’s throats, and there have been some very aggressive tactics used by both sides in recent years. But in the last few weeks, the most damaging blows seem to be hitting the piggy in the middle - the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

There are times when it can be dangerous being the referee. It is

no surprise to find the Times and the Daily Telegraph at each other’s

throats, and there have been some very aggressive tactics used by both

sides in recent years. But in the last few weeks, the most damaging

blows seem to be hitting the piggy in the middle - the Audit Bureau of

Circulations.



It all began as far back as last November with a squabble about bulk

sales. Last week, the temperature rose as writs began to fly. News

International complained to the ABC about the inclusion of cut-price

subscription copies in the Telegraph’s December sales figure. The

Telegraph responded by claiming that the Times’s Monday sale shouldn’t

count towards its ABC figure because its 10p cover price didn’t deliver

a profit to News International. No profit, no sale. Not in the ABC

definition of a sale, at any rate.



NI has used some creative accountancy arguments to insist that the

Monday figure should count, but that’s hardly the issue any more. While

the two publishers argue over increasingly arcane technical points, the

industry is losing sight of the fact that the ABC trading currency is

being badly dented.



The ABC is losing control and credibility.



Certainly the ABC rules are woefully out of date - they’re just not able

to cope with the barrage of promotional techniques used by publishers

these days. Putting that situation right, though, may not be easy. It

could involve not just a tweaking of the rules but a fundamental

examination of the bureau’s constitution.



The problem is that although the ABC is an independent company, the

publishers just happen to be in control. The Incorporated Society of

British Advertisers and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising

are represented on the board, but the other permanent board seats go to

publishers - representatives of the Newspaper Publishers Association,

the Periodical Publishers Association and the Newspaper Society.



Last week, as the Times-Telegraph controversy raged, NPA members met

behind closed doors to debate the future of the ABC rules. Other board

members and ABC staffers were excluded. Doesn’t that make the whole

organisation look silly?



Ray Hall, the general manager of the ABC, says not. ’The last set of

rules took two years to develop and came out two years ago. We went on

record as far back as December saying that the rules had to be looked at

again in the light of the marketing techniques used by publishers these

days.’



Others are less happy. Many believe that the ABC should be doing more

than merely listening. Nick Phillips, the director general of the IPA,

takes a cautious line, but insists that ’all decisions have to be taken

on the basis of a joint industry committee’.



Others are less guarded. ’The ABC has to be a stronger and more

independent arbiter,’ Bill Kinlay, the media director of the Network,

says. ’That will happen when there is far stronger representation of

agencies and clients on the board. The publishers have become far more

competitive. The ABC needs to change.’



The problem is that the NPA tends to regard the ABC as a marketing

device for its members rather than a genuine trading currency. And after

all, NPA members pay the bills. Why should they change their

attitudes?



Because it’s ultimately in their interest, Kinlay ventures. ’Publishers

need to be realistic. If they don’t restore the ABC’s credibility, its

value will decline and the whole exercise will become pointless.

Newspapers need to achieve a balance, working together, sharing some

resource and listening to the rest of the industry. I’d like to think

it’s achievable.’



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