When the working party of the Audit Bureau of Circulations meets for the first time on Friday (March 10), it’ll have some serious issues to discuss.
The question of how a paper’s audited circulation can be exaggerated by as much as 17% and remain undiscovered for six years will hang over their deliberations as the six men and women attempt to ensure that the chances of a repetition of the Birmingham Post & Mail scandal are significantly reduced.
They will have to reassure agencies and advertisers that the ABC audit remains the best proof of circulation, a gold standard in a sea of research riddled with sample sizes and margins of error.
ABC chairman John Mayhead and his working party will report back to the audit body’s ruling council in September, but to say they have six months to save the ABC is, says Mayhead, overstating the case.
The issues under discussion – the role of third-party auditors and how frequently their work is inspected by ABC staff – may seem slightly arcane but, he adds, they lie at the heart of the issue.
“What is fundamentally important to me is that whatever comes out of that review has to back the fact that ABC has to be the gold standard,” he says.
Mayhead insists the current pro-cess of investigation would have happened even if the auditing discrepancy had not occurred at a high-profile paper. “Had there been a problem with another not so high profile title, that raised the same issues, the ABC would still be seeking to review its procedures,” he says.
The ABC executive team – headed by chief executive Simon Devitt – will not have a role in the committee’s musings and debates. Instead, it will appear like a witness at a select committee, pitching its own set of proposals to the six-strong jury.
Mayhead insists it would have been a knee-jerk reaction merely to insist all audits were carried out by ABC staff. “Theoretically there should be no reason why respectable auditing firms should not produce accurate data,” he adds.
This six-month inquiry will, he says, give enough time to examine the issue now that the “frying pan has been taken out of the fire”.
“The issues the review has got to look carefully at are: are the auditors properly trained and are the procedures they’re given to follow clear and comprehensive,” he says.
While Devitt says all third-party auditors have been working with the ABC for some time and have built up an experience of press auditing, one potential solution might be to improve training. The one-day course the ABC runs to educate a financial auditor in the ways of newspaper circulation departments may no longer be enough.
Indeed, one of the questions being asked by Mayhead’s working party will be: are the financial auditors clued up enough to spot discrepancies? New categories such as bulk distribution and exhibitions are only audited by in-house staff.
Despite Devitt and Mayhead’s insistence that the issue is being taken extremely seriously, both maintain this one problem doesn’t undermine the reputation of the ABC. “It would be unfortunate if people wrote that all was rotten in the state of Denmark just because of one high-profile incident,” says Mayhead. “If this happened once every year for five years or once every six months for five years, the industry credibility would wane a bit.”