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Certainly the ABC rules are woefully out of date - they’re just not able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