If I told you that a private company had instructed me to remove this video, I would expect you to be shocked. What do you think about the same private company instructing me to stop saying this: “the calorie theory and conventional weight loss advice is wrong” and this: “weight gain and loss also depends far more on carbs consumed, than calories, or fat, consumed“? Appalled? Outraged?
That’s exactly what has happened, over the past year. The private company is the Advertising Standards Authority.
* You probably think that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is an official body. You would be wrong. It is a self-appointed, self-regulated, upholder of the opinions of another non-official, self-appointed, self-regulated body: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP).
* CAP make up ‘the Codes of Advertising Practice”; the ASA apply them. Think of CAP and the ASA like Simon and Louis in the X Factor, only not as entertaining: Simon makes up the rules, Louis follows them.
They are two sides of the same coin; partners in crime. One has a red web site; the other has a blue web site – look how similar they are. Well, they do live at the same address: Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6QT. They even publish a shared annual report.
* Both bodies use the tag line “Legal, decent, honest, truthful.” These are not legal bodies, (as in set up by law) let alone decent, honest or truthful. These two organisations are more misleading per se than any misleading advert I have seen. The most misleading thing is that they lead you to believe they are official bodies. They aren’t. They write to you as if they have legal powers. They don’t. You can’t even lodge a complaint about them being misleading because they are accountable to no one.
* CAP/ASA decided in 2010 that they will extend their self appointed remit to the internet. As someone who does not place adverts and does not allow adverts on any of my web sites, I would not expect to have anything to do with either body. CAP and the ASA have different views. They have decreed that, if you are connected to ‘a product’ in any way e.g. author of a book, web pages that they decide are connected with that book shall be deemed adverts.
* CAP have opinions. They have opinions on things you may not even think warrant an opinion. They have opinions on global warming, fat burning, the calorie theory, current dietary advice, cholesterol, stripograms (yes, really!) and religious organisations, just as examples.
* In my world of diet, health and nutrition, CAP believe that the current dietary advice is correct. They believe the calorie theory. They believe that Flora gunge is good for the heart and that cholesterol is bad. They have no evidence for any of this – but they are a self-appointed regulator, so they do whatever they like.
* A troll writes to the ASA and complains that you say things on your web site like “the calorie theory and conventional weight loss advice is wrong“. The ASA then writes to you saying:
i) We have decreed that your web page is an advert;
ii) You are in breach of the CAP code; and
iii) You must stop saying things that CAP don’t like, or we will put you on our naughty boys’ list.
Hence – we are now on the naughty boys’ list. Or, as Dr Malcolm Kendrick says, we now have a badge of honour!
This blog is about censorship. This blog is about one unofficial body trying to silence any views that are different to the opinions of their partner unofficial body, which you can assume to be conventional. It’s also about the scum levels that troll cowards are stooping to, to try to silence progressive thinking. (Our ‘troll coward’/complainant by the way was Stuart Flint, who has tried to snipe and whinge away anonymously as Slipp Digby on twitter for years. He squealed like a sewer rat when his identity was revealed!)
We asked CAP for evidence for their codes. The full exchange can be seen here. The bottom line is that CAP have no evidence for their opinions, against which they are judging us and in the field in which they are demanding evidence from us.
I wrote to the ASA chair, Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, and the CAP chair, James Best, and asked them four questions:
1) What gives the ASA/CAP (you are two parts of the same) the right to try to censor free speech?
2) Who gave the ASA/CAP the power to police any debate on the internet (including, but not limited to, health, nutrition, climate change etc) upon which CAP holds an opinion for the ASA to enforce?
3) How do you justify demanding evidence from me when a) you have none of your own (in my area of expertise anyway – see Appendix) and b) when the ASA are not able to consider our evidence because it differs from CAP’s opinions?
4) What will you do about this case, now and ongoing, given that I will not remove content from the World Wide Web, which challenges the status quo, just because CAP holds a conventional view?
I have not yet received a reply from CAP. The ASA chair did not deign to reply, but the head of casework replied on his behalf. Her response was as follows:
1) “Marketers have a right to express their opinions freely so long as they do so in line with the rules set out in the CAP code.”
i.e. you can freely express your opinions so long as they are the same as CAP’s. CAP holds conventional opinions and thus any non-conventional views are not allowed.
2) “Our authority to regulate marketing materials derives from an agreement from Government through which the ASA is designated as the ‘established’ means for administering the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Practice Regulations 2008 (the CPRs), which prohibit unfair, misleading or aggressive marketing to consumers.”
This is misleading. It implies that the ASA have been appointed by the Government to regulate adverts, which they have not. All that they have is access to the Office of Fair Trading (now abolished, by the way), which everyone else in the UK also has. They have no government authority to impose their opinions across the internet and to silence debate.
3) “It is not for the ASA to disprove a claim that a marketer has made and we are entitled to base our rules on generally accepted public health advice in the interest of consumer protection.”
i.e. we don’t have to provide evidence. We don’t have to disprove your evidence. We “are entitled” to rely on conventional thinking and insist on any non-conventional views being removed.
4) “If you refuse to comply with the advertising code following an ‘Upheld’ ASA adjudication, our Compliance team has a range of sanctions that include posting your name on our wall of non-compliant advertisers.”
i.e. if you do not allow yourself to be censored, we will put you on our naughty boys list.
That’s censorship and bullying and all sorts of other contemptible behaviour.
Logic & futility – you cannot win
To use one of our examples, a troll objected to this video “as it implied that conventional weight loss advice was wrong.” You bet it does!
The ASA decreed that the video is an advert for the book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? That’s tenuous enough – but go with it. They then say that you’re not allowed to imply that conventional weight loss advice is wrong (because CAP have decreed that it is right) and therefore you must remove your ‘advert’ a.k.a. the video. Yes – seriously folks – George Orwell was way more prophetic than he/we realised.
If my site contained details of a book that reflected CAP’s opinions, there would be no issue. The Simon and Louis, Yin and Yang, of CAP and the ASA would not be trying to censor me. The ‘but for’ is therefore my content, not the notion that I am ‘advertising a book’.
To use another of our examples: This is a direct quotation from ASA correspondence:
“The claim “In no way is the body as simplistic as energy in = energy out – and, therefore, we do not need to put less energy in and/or try to get more energy out. We need to eat better, not to eat less” in ad (e) [ZH – that’s a web page] and comparison in ad (g) [ZH – that’s the video] misleadingly implied that conventional weight loss advice was wrong.” Again – you bet it does!
The ASA have decreed that this is i) in breach of CAP’s opinions (sorry – the CAP code) and ii) misleading. We pointed out to the ASA that – IF the web pages are adverts (and we have never accepted this – they are my editorial content) then we have two options:
i) Write conventional nonsense, which makes CAP happy, but then site visitors would be misled because the book is anything but conventional; or
ii) NOT mislead visitors and make site content clear that I do NOT subscribe to conventional wisdom, but then CAP would put you on the naughty boys list.
You cannot win in the ASA/CAP world of Alice in Wonderland.
The bottom line
We shared the attempt to elicit evidence from CAP with the ASA and asked a specific question:
“Please can you let us know how the ASA can review evidence submitted, in a “legal, decent, honest and truthful”, way when you exist to impose the opinions of CAP and the evidence submitted is counter to the opinions of CAP?”
The ASA replied back “As you are aware, it is the role of CAP to write, and review as necessary, the rules and it is the ASA’s role to apply them. Whilst I have noted your comments, because the ASA simply apply those rules I would not be able to consider as part of the investigation the evidence base or validity of those rules.”
And there you have it ladies and gentlemen. CAP admit they have no evidence. The ASA admit they have no choice but to administer the opinions of CAP. If someone complains to the Alternative-view Silencing Agency about you, don’t waste a second of your time submitting evidence. It makes not one iota of difference. Knowing this – you may like to choose your response more appropriately. From now on, ours will be “to ignore”.
“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell.
p.s. I always like to check conflicts of interest. To quote the ASA: “The ASA is funded by advertisers through an arm’s length arrangement that guarantees the ASA’s independence”. Ha ha. Check out P35 of the 2013 Annual Report, Unilever had 3 of the top 6 most complained about adverts. None were upheld by the Alternative-view Silencing Agency. Don’t bite the hand that feeds eh!?