MEDIA FORUM: Can media buyers trust the findings of the ABC? How much damage has been done to the credibility of the ABC system? It would be nice to believe that the Trinity Mirror furore is an isolated example of wickedness - but how do we know if that i

It has not been a good autumn for media research. Last month, The Telegraph’s decision to research readership behaviour on its bitter rival, The Times, reminded everyone of the long history of National Readership Surveys’ inadequacies in the area of section research. Then we had the BARB television audience measurement system delaying the publication of digital TV viewing data, and then denying that they had broken promises because they hadn’t made any promises in the first place. There were those who read slightly sinister motivations into these prevarications.

It has not been a good autumn for media research. Last month, The

Telegraph’s decision to research readership behaviour on its bitter

rival, The Times, reminded everyone of the long history of National

Readership Surveys’ inadequacies in the area of section research. Then

we had the BARB television audience measurement system delaying the

publication of digital TV viewing data, and then denying that they had

broken promises because they hadn’t made any promises in the first

place. There were those who read slightly sinister motivations into

these prevarications.



But now we seem to have hit the choppiest waters of all - the recent

revelations that the Audit Bureau of Circulations system has been

systematically defrauded over the course of a number of years by three

Birmingham titles, now part of the newly merged Trinity Mirror group.

Figures for the Evening Mail and Sunday Mercury have consistently been

pumped up by about 17 per cent while those of the Birmingham Post have

been inflated by 10 per cent.



When fraud occurs these days, the smartest move is usually to announce

that the fraud is the work of a rogue trader and that the system or

institutions involved are not compromised. Would that work in the case

of the ABC?



And how worried should we be about the possibility that there has been

widespread and long-term abuse of the system?



In particular, what reassurances can Simon Devitt, the chief executive

of the ABC, give? None, at present, is the simple answer - the ABC will

begin an inquiry as soon as it can but the possibility of legal action

may well complicate or delay matters. Devitt says: ’We are certainly not

jumping to any conclusions at this stage and it may not be wise for

anyone in the advertising industry to do so either. The ABC audits

around 3,500 media entities - some we do ourselves but, in some sectors,

auditing is done by the publisher’s financial auditors and that is the

case in this instance. Our relationship with the auditors is similar to

the one that they have with shareholders - they have a duty of

care.’



Which, of course, reminds everyone that the ABC is only an auditor at

one remove. It has to trust that a publisher’s financial auditors - in

Trinity Mirror’s case, PricewaterhouseCoopers - are doing a thorough

job. Does that system need re-examining? Devitt is keeping an open mind

but he suspects not. ’I can understand why some people might now want us

to check for fraud at every company in the UK, but we are confident that

this is an isolated incident and any circulation manager will tell you

how rigorous the process already is,’ he says. ’On the other hand, there

is always room for improvement and, if we need to improve the rules, we

will end up with a much strengthened ABC.’



But, as Devitt has indicated, it could be a long while before the ad

industry gets at the truth because it could all be sub judice. And

although Trinity Mirror has indicated that compensation to advertisers

and agencies is an issue, the entire business could be messy and drawn

out.



That would be a worry for a lot of buyers. Although readership, as

measured by the NRS, is regarded by many as a more important trading

benchmark, ABC figures are used to derive ratecards and, especially in

sectors that are traded on a commodity basis, are increasingly used as a

trading currency, with the NRS and TGI surveys used mainly for

planning.



Tim Kirkman, the press director of Carat, is worried about the long-term

implications of this scandal. He says: ’There is a widening credibility

gap with the ABC figures. Previous arguments surrounding the ABC were

all about what we were counting and how we were to go about it - never

about whether they were fundamentally incorrect. Now we have to face the

question about whether fraud isn’t widespread. We need a full statement

as to how this problem was able to occur and how the ABC will go about

stopping it happening in the future.’



It all depends on how easily the wool was pulled over

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ eyes in the Birmingham case. But Steve Goodman,

the head of press at MediaCom TMB, says the ABC must now take the

opportunity to look at a complete overhaul of the system. He says: ’If

the ABC were to be positive and try to turn this to their advantage,

they might argue that this could be healthy.



It might help them persuade publishers that they do need to address

these issues. I have some sympathy with the ABC in that respect because

some publishers can be very obstructive. And with regard to this

particular case, my view is that the ABC is not entirely to blame

because it is impossible to stop someone who is determined to deceive an

auditor.’



But Goodman, like many in the industry, remains worried about how

Trinity Mirror will address the issue of compensation - for instance, he

doesn’t believe that the pounds 20 million total figure being talked

about will be enough. He’d like to see it handled on an industry

basis.



It’s unlikely to happen. Marc Mendoza, the managing director of

Mediapolis and press spokesman on the Media Policy Group of the

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says that, where compensation

is concerned, it will be a matter for individual agencies and

clients.



He says: ’There are so many permutations of individual circumstances

that there is no way you can issue guidelines to cover them all. We

would have to say, though, that it would not be acceptable if, as I

believe has been suggested, the only concession offered by Trinity

Mirror is merely to hold off on planned ratecard increases. We need to

look at a number of factors including free space, discounts and cash

compensation.’



As for the future of the ABC system, Mendoza believes that certain

people on the media specialist side of the fence have been far too quick

to ’grab headlines’ by encouraging panic. He adds: ’That’s an

irresponsible thing to do before we’ve even begun to find out what went

wrong and who is responsible.



My view is that it is a rare set of circumstances when a number of

people get together and work in collusion to hide things. We have to

reserve judgment until more is known.’



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