Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cranmer and the ASA

A substantial and growing number of bloggers have joined a Spartacus-like campaign in defence of my distinguished colleague Cranmer, apparently under the misapprehension that he's being persecuted by the Advertising Standards Authority. The boring truth is that he isn't, although there may have been some sort of mix-up. That said, the case is disturbing for a number of reasons.

For one thing, however the complaint about the Coalition 4 Marriage advertisement is ultimately resolved, the seriousness with which the ASA is treating it provides further evidence of the low value that the regulator attaches to freedom of speech where there any possibility of "offence". I'll come back to that. The more immediate question raised is over the applicability of the ASA's investigatory procedures to smalltime bloggers, even one as celebrated as His Grace.

If you're unaware of the known facts, Cranmer tells his side of the story here. But briefly, he (along with several other blogs) carried a sidebar advert for C4M, which is campaigning against the proposed extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples. The Coalition is clearly on the wrong side of history; nevertheless, it has attracted a great deal of publicity and claims to have collected more than half a million signatures for its online petition. The advert in question linked to the petition: it was thus, in effect, an appeal for signatures. If you haven't seen it already, here it is.


The sidebar link, along with a print version of the advert which appeared in Country Life, was the subject of a number of complaints from individuals, and also from the Jewish Gay & Lesbian Group. It is asserted that the claim that 70% of people support "traditional" (i.e. heterosexual) marriage is misleading. It is also alleged that the ad was itself homophobic and offensive. The ASA has launched a formal investigation into whether the ad falls foul the CAP code (which it applies). As part of that investigation, it sent an email to Cranmer which he regarded as indimidating. It states, among other things, that


We require you to explain your rationale for the ad and comment specifically on the points raised in the attached complaint notification


And demands

robust documentary evidence to back the claims and a clear explanation from you of its relevance and why you think it substantiates the claims. It is not enough to send references to or abstracts of documents and papers without sending the reports in full and specifically highlighting the relevant parts explaining why they are relevant to the matter in hand.

A reply is requested by 21st May, after which the ASA will "draft a recommendation for the Council based on your response to us" and publish its adjudication on its website.

This all does indeed sound fairly intimidating, the more so since it came with a request (or a demand) for confidentiality. It seems that Cranmer felt the need (quite unnecessarily, I think) to seek the advice of a lawyer, at some personal expense. This is unfortunate. On the face of it, it's puzzling that the ASA saw fit to write to Cranmer at all. He did, after all, merely host the advert. He is not responsible for its content, even if he happens to agree with the message it conveys. It is for the advertiser, not the publisher, to justify the content of any controversial advert.

Presumably others who featured the banner on their websites received the same email. Guido certainly did. Instead of writing a lengthy post claiming that he was being persecuted and censored by the "Gestapo", however, he merely offered the following Tweet: "Have received same complaint from ASA told them to take a run and jump." That strikes me as the better course.

The ASA helpfully provides a leaflet for the benefit of advertisers who find themselves subject to one of their investigations. From it we learn that "about 80% of the complaints we receive don't raise any problems and in these cases we simply answer the complaint without any need to contact you." It goes on to inform the reader that "we prefer to work by persuasion and consensus and, where appropriate, we will resolove issues informally." A formal investigation will only take place in cases of "a possible serious breach of the rules." It seems, then, that the complaints about the C4M ad have cleared both those hurdles and that the ASA considers the matter a serious one that cannot be resolved informally.

In such cases, "We'll write to the advertiser and other parties appropriate to the complaint, which might include the ad agency, the media that broadcast or published the ad, and the clearance centre. We'll explain what the complaint is about, which Code clauses are relevant and ask for a response to the complaint." This is what Cranmer, among others, received the other day.

In other words, what Cranmer interpreted as threatening and Guido as in impertinence to be simply tossed in the virtual bin, was no more and no less than the ASA's usual procedure. C4M will presumably have received the same demand; no doubt they are preparing, or have already prepared, their response. The ASA's questions are simply not relevant to Cranmer's role in the affair: what they are seeking, I would guess, is a simple assurance that he accepted the advert in good faith and that he does not consider it to be offensive. A two sentence response will suffice. A mainstream publisher would realise this. Country Life will no doubt pass the ASA's email to their legal department (assuming they have one) who will dispatch a brief response promising to abide by the final adjudication.

In treating Cranmer as a publisher, and not specifying clearly why it was contacting him personally and what it actually expects him to provide, the ASA has blundered into a wholly unnecessary row about free speech. Its approach is clearly not appropriate to the world of blogging and social media. The tone of the email, formal and bureaucratic as it was, is almost certain to come across as threatening and/or presumptuous to an independent blogger who's in no position to supply the information apparently being demanded. The ASA should have realised that its communication might have such an effect. It should certainly take note of the backlash its email has generated and revise their procedures.

[UPDATE: According to Cranmer (via Twitter) there was a crucial difference between the email received by Guido and the one sent to him, in that the former was clearly marked as being for information while Cranmer alone was asked to justify the tone and content of the advert. If that is true, then he appears to have been the victim of an administrative error; all the various publishers should have been treated in the same way. In that case he has valid grounds for seeking an explanation and apology; now that he has consulted a lawyer, I would also suggest he asks for his legal expenses to be defrayed.]

Much of the somewhat hysterical reaction, beneath Cranmer's post and in sympathetic blogs, seems to be based on the idea that the blogger himself is being censored, that the ASA is attempting to run its blue pencil over his opinions. The CAP code is quite clear, however, that it does not apply to "editorial content, news or public relations material". Cranmer can say what he likes about same sex marriage. So can C4M. Only where they use advertising to publicise their campaign do they become subject to the Code.

Finally a brief look att the complaints themselves, and whether they deserve the detailed consideration the ASA is giving them. Leaving aside the contested nature of the 70% claim, the complainants allege that a montage of wedding photos (all of them featuring opposite-sex couples) and accompanied by the message "Help us keep the true meaning of marriage" is in itself offensive and homophobic. Whatever the underlying motivations of C4M (which may well be many and varied) I cannot believe that an advert that says nothing whatever about homosexuality, for or against, can possibly be construed as offensive. Even in its current mood of hypersensitivity as regards issues of offence (a disposition that annoys secularists at least as much as it annoys some religious people) I would be amazed if the ASA decided that such a message falls foul of its Code. But then it's surprising enough that the regulator considered such a trivial complaint necessitated a formal investigation, so you never know.

The preamble states that "the Code makes due allowance for public sensitivities but will not be used by the ASA to diminish freedom of speech unjustifiably". It also states that "the ASA does not arbitrate between conflicting ideologies". A decision that the C4M ad was offensively homophobic would be hard to square with either of those promises. The more serious complaint relates to the use of the 70% figure; there is a reasonable argument that it is indeed misleading.

That is a rather different issue, however.