Last Thursday was a sad day for the regional press as Trinity
Mirror took to the City confessional and admitted to some scandalous
circulation-figure fixing on its Birmingham papers.
Such jiggery-pokery will reflect badly on regional newspapers as a
whole, and will not have been greeted with glee by the ABC. But before
we criticise the audit system, lay the blame at the door of ’circulation
bonuses’ and denigrate the regional press, it is worth taking a closer
look at the situation in Birmingham.
The ad sales team, which could benefit to some degree from the falsely
boosted circulation, knew nothing of the ’irregularities’.
Nor, as far as anyone knows, did the senior managers on the paper. It
looks as if this was a fiddle perpetrated by a very small handful of
people in the circulation department.
One national newspaper, reporting on last week’s events, suggested the
strong emphasis on circulation figures and the bonuses offered had made
it just too tempting for staff to resist the scam. This is nonsense -
hundreds of thousands of workers are under pressure to deliver the right
figures to their bosses or bank managers every week, but almost all of
them manage it without falsifying the numbers.
It would also be easy to blame the ABC auditing system. The way the
figures are recorded seems unnecessarily complicated to the uninitiated,
and it is easy to pour scorn on a system that did not pick up the fact
the Evening Mail was inventing a fictional 30,000 copies every single
day for the past five years.
But the ABC system is a good one, providing a balance between an
easy-to-understand system and the range of information that advertisers
And the ABC does not carry out the regional circulation audits -
sensibly it leaves that task to the normally inscrutable accountancy
PricewaterhouseCoopers was the accountant in this case, and it must
shoulder some of the blame for not picking up the irregularities. But
mud never seems to stick on the accountancy giants, so PWC may escape
Let’s hope the regional press and ABC escape too. There’s no evidence
that this is anything other than a one-off irregularity perpetrated by a
few individuals. And although it should serve as a warning to others,
there have been no similar scandals in this country in recent years and
the majority of circulation and sales directors are at pains to present
their readers with an accurate and transparent picture of their
If the financial director at a single retail or travel company is found
to have embezzled money, we don’t instantly assume every travel company
is on the make. Why should this situation be any different?