ASA concedes Lord Smith's conflict of interest
Thanks to John Bingham, the brilliant Social Affairs Editor of The Telegraph, the demands of this blog for the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority to step down over his manifest conflict of interest have entered the mainstream media.
The issue really is quite straightforward, and His Grace is at a loss to understand why others cannot see it. Lord Smith is actively campaigning for same-sex marriage while chairing an organisation that is investigating a perfectly reasonable and inoffensive advertisement promoting traditional marriage for alleged 'homophobia'. The complaint is malicious and vexatious and ought to have been dismissed; the investigation is harassing, bullying and intimidating. Lord Smith's position is untenable.
Yesterday His Grace received a number of blog comments, emails and tweets from people insisting that there was absolutely no problem for the Chairman of the ASA to have 'come out' for same-sex marriage while the organisation he leads is simultaneously harassing and bullying those who carried a perfectly innocuous advertisement promoting the traditional view of marriage. According to Dr David Webster, former Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the ASA, the Chairman is 'operationally distinct'.
Yet the intrepid Mr Bingham has established that the ASA itself believes that their Chairman has a conflict of interest in this matter. A spokesman said: “Our chairman ordinarily does not vote, we have got 13 members of the council and the decisions are taken by them and our chairman does not ordinarily vote unless it is split. There is a conflict of interest here so even should the decision have been split he would not vote.”
Well, thank God for that.
So much for Dr Webster's insistence that the ASA Chairman is 'operationally distinct': it is apparent that he chairs all Council meetings (how many limited companies have a council?) which take the decision to investigate potential breaches of the advertising code. This being the case, it is simply not sufficient for Lord Smith to lose his vote. He would have been (and will be) present at all discussions and party to all decisions: it is absurd to assert that his status and influence as Chairman have no bearing at all upon the decisions of other ASA Council members. It is very difficult indeed to support an advertisement in favour of heterosexual marriage in the presence of someone who believes it to be 'homophobic'.
The ASA persists with the assurance of 'robust' processes which 'ensure that the decision on the complaint would be fair and impartial'. But this misses the point. The mere decision to investigate the Coalition for Marriage advertisement for being 'offensive and homophobic' is so patently absurd that the ASA's profession of fairness and impartiality is already fatally undermined. The investigation is harassing, bullying and intimidating: the process they inflict is itself a punishment. They may very well eventually determine that the C4M ad is neither offensive nor homophobic, but this does not negate the fact that the ASA Council, under the chairmanship of Chris Smith, determined to extend their remit to incorporate the promotion of political causes and ideas.
If the Chairman of the ASA had been Lord Carey, who happens to be 'out' in his support for the Coalition for Marriage, and under his chairmanship the ASA had decided to investigate an 'equal marriage' advertisement for being 'offensive' and 'Christianophobic', the ASA would have been besieged by Twitter hordes of militants gays who would have hounded him out of office. The apparent conflict of interest would have been picked up by the BBC and the rest of the liberal-left media, and his position would have become untenable.
If the Chairman of the ASA had been Nadine Dorries MP, who happens to be 'out' in her support for cutting the upper limit on abortion, and under her chairmanship the ASA had decided to investigate a pro-abortion advertisement for being 'offensive' or 'anti-life', the ASA would have been besieged by hordes of 'pro-choice' activists and militant feminists who would have hounded her out of office. The apparent conflict of interest would have been picked up by the BBC and the rest of the liberal-left media, and her position would have become untenable.
If the Chairman of the ASA had been the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe, who happens to be an 'out' convert to Roman Catholicism who opposed the abolition of the common law criminal offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, and under her chairmanship the ASA had decided to investigate the 'There's probably is no God...' campaign for 'offence' and 'blasphemy', the ASA would have been besieged by Dr Richard Dawkins (and militant disciples) who would have hounded her out of office. The apparent conflict of interest would have been picked up by the BBC and the rest of the liberal-left media, and her position would have become untenable.
And, as His Grace said yesterday, if Lord Smith were a director or shareholder of Sainsbury's, and under his chairmanship the ASA decided to investigate Tesco over 10 vexatious complaints objecting to the promotion of their own brand of baked beans, the impartiality, reliability and validity of the investigation would be undermined from the outset, and Tesco directors, shareholders and shoppers would be justifiably outraged that a man with a vested commercial interest had indulged the complainants.
Lord Smith is simultaneously Chairman of the ASA and Vice President of The Campaign for Homosexual Equality. A man cannot serve two masters. The ASA is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it does include an FoI page on its website 'because it carries out an important public functions which include the regulation of television and newspaper advertising'. A request has been made to determine whether or not Chris Smith has declared his vice-presidency of a campaign which looks for homophobia under every cornflake, because apparently he has the power to determine how those cornflakes are packaged and promoted and so to influence which brand is most likely to make it to your breakfast table. We are what we eat.