The commercial chiefs of our national newspapers have never exactly
prided themselves on being the most sober members of the industry and
indulging in a bit of jaunty rivalry is part of the job spec. But it
can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there has been some rather
pathetic tit-for-tatting in the newspaper arena recently and the
professional demeanour of its most respectable individuals has wobbled
as a result. This week things wobbled a bit more.
The prime cause of the rumpus is the basis on which newspaper sales
figures are calculated. As competition in the market reaches fever
pitch, the marketing war has become fiercer and the industry’s official
circulation figures have become the prime battleground.
And bulk copies of national newspapers - thousands of issues distributed
free through hotels, airlines, shops and so on as a sampling exercise -
have become the preferred weapon of choice for many publishers.
Boring though it might sound, the issue has generated a real
With newspaper sales under pressure, bulk sales have taken on a new
Far from being a smart marketing initiative, bulks have come to be seen
as a cynical and calculated ploy for defending market ranking and
avoiding embarrassing PR.
As a consequence, the press has been full of claims and counter claims
which have seen newspaper publishers engaging in some rather unseemly
knocking, serving only to dent the reputation of the industry as a
The latest spat came when News International accused the Mirror of
bulking more than 100,000 copies to Ladbrokes on 28 March. No surprise,
then, that the Mirror managed to cling on to its position as Britain’s
second biggest-selling paper, fending off the Mail’s advance. Identified
by News International as an example of ’the cynical ease with which a
determined publisher can manipulate reported sales’, the debacle threw a
critical spotlight on the role of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
The ABC is hardly blameless. All too often its movements have been slow,
shrouded in confusion and bureaucracy. It’s not surprising that the
publishers have had little regard for the credibility of the bureau.
Nor was it surprising to hear this week that the ABC had parted company
with its chief executive, Ray Hall; his job was clearly a poisoned
chalice to challenge the strongest of stomachs. Before a replacement is
rushed through there surely needs to be a fundamental reappraisal of the
ABC’s role and its powers. It has to regain and retain the respect of
the newspaper publishers.
More crucially, the publishers need to prove they are capable of
policing themselves when it comes to bulks and can rise above the
temptation to be economic with the facts. If not, then perhaps bulk
sales should be outlawed. Which would be a pity, because, in case
anyone’s forgotten, their origins lie in some sensible marketing
thinking and that’s what the industry needs right now.