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« Salby in Blighty | Main | Climate emergency »

The ASA is a kangaroo court

Americans tend to be completely taken aback when they learn that the UK has a body that rules on what can and cannot be said in the public sphere; they see the Advertising Standards Agency as an affront to the hallowed principle of free speech. A ruling against an advertisement in the Telegraph by US unconventional gas company Breitling suggests that they are right to do so.

This is not the first time that the ASA has been called on to adjudicate in a shale gas case. Last year, shale gas operator Cuadrilla was hauled up in front of them after a complaint about a leaflet it had distributed. Some of the ASA's ruling was bizarre. For example, a statement that

The Government's own review, published in April 2012, also concluded that it was safe to resume hydraulic fracturing [in the Bowland Basin].

was ruled misleading because the government review had said that operators would need to be cautious. Similarly, a statement that

"This data will allow us to adjust the injection volume and rate during the fracturing procedure, managing the process to ensure that no one should notice any disturbance or even be aware of the activity".

was ruled out of order because the government review had not "had not suggested that in doing so [tremors] were unlikely to be noticed at all". The ASA case seems bizarrely to be based around an argument that a 0.5ML tremor might be noticed by someone. 

The new ruling against Breitling includes similarly extraordinary arguments. I urge readers to read the whole thing: it's lynch mob justice in action. Take, for example, the claim that replacement of coal with gas would lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. You might think this would be seen as wholly uncontroversial. But not, it seems, for the ASA:

We referred to the 2014 US Environmental Protection Agency report supplied by Breitling. We acknowledged that it attributed the reduction in total US greenhouse gas emissions from 2011 to 2012 in part to a shift towards natural gas. However, it was also clear from the report that other factors had played a role, namely, an increase in fuel efficiency across transport modes, limited new demand for passenger transportation and much warmer winter weather, leading to decreased demand for heating fuel.

Although it appeared likely that UK shale gas extraction would deliver a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over coal, we noted that this was not a universally accepted opinion and understood that it was itself dependent on the set-up of the extraction site(s) and the success of any measures that would be put in place to mitigate against fugitive methane emissions. Further, we understood that, because of the limited life span of shale gas wells, shale was proposed as a bridge technology rather than a long-term energy option. We noted the concern expressed in the policy brief cited under point 5 that adopting a gas generation infrastructure could undermine wider efforts to decarbonise the UK power sector.

So the ASA, in the first sentence, completely accepts Breitling's evidence, but goes on to say that other things can reduce greenhouse gas emissions too. To which the answer is surely "So what?". Breitling's case was that replacing coal with gas can reduce carbon emissions, not that it is the only thing that can do so.

The following arguments by the ASA are interesting though. Let me reword slightlly:

Although it appeared possible that windfarms would deliver a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over coal, we noted that this was not a universally accepted opinion [see Gordon Hughes] and understood that it was dependent on the effect on intermittent energy on the rest of the grid.

It seems to me that any claim that windfarms reduce carbon dioxide emissions overall would be open to a complaint to the ASA which they would have no choice but to uphold. They would surely have to uphold complaints made about claims derived from climate models.

Or at least they would have no choice if they were not headed by Chris Smith who, as head of the Environment Agency, needs little introduction to BH readers. Under Smith's chairmanship, the EA has developed into an organisation so beset by corruption and graft that it would do a Latin American dictatorship proud. I doubt therefore that being perceived as running a kangaroo court would be of very great concern.

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Reader Comments (28)

Another example of how extremists infect and degrade everything around them.

Sep 3, 2014 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

I have chapter and verse of hilarious back-bending agit propaganda from them in response to my complaint about the infamous story book characters climbing up the village church steeple in drowning England a few years back.

When it was pointed out that even the IPCC said 60cm in a century maximum sea rise, the ASA justification for the ad was that it was just a metaphor.

They are climate zealots.

Sep 3, 2014 at 9:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

ASA "However, it was also clear from the report that other factors had played a role, namely, an increase in fuel efficiency across transport modes, limited new demand for passenger transportation and much warmer winter weather, leading to decreased demand for heating fuel."

Correct me if I am wrong but didn't America just have a cold winter caused by the Polar Vortex?

Sep 3, 2014 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

ASA: 'independently chaired by Lord Smith'.
No need to enquire any further as to where the tone and thrust of the decision came from.

Sep 3, 2014 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterCheshirered

"we noted that this was not a universally accepted opinion"

Chewy, take the Professor out the back and plug him into the hyperdrive.

But I must admit I wasn't aware that opinions had to be universally accepted before being allowed in adverts. Still, maybe we could maybe do away the IPCC and use the ASA instead. Probably the same result.

Sep 3, 2014 at 10:36 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

It seems to me that the gang-green that is affecting our society must be terminal when an agency set up to control the excesses of advertising claims seems instead to have become an arbiter and an expert on climate science and gas drilling.

Perhaps they would do better to concentrate on all those dodgy washing detergent manufacturers whose product always washes better than the competition and all those beauty product suppliers who offer eternal youth.

Sep 3, 2014 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterColin Porter

The green infection is everywhere and in every sphere of modern life. Tell a big lie for long enough and it will eventually be seen as the truth.

Sep 3, 2014 at 11:03 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

No drowning puppies or school children exploding at the press of the teachers button.

Sep 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

I don't disagree with your criticism of the ASA but have I missed something? When I was last involved with the ASA it was not a "state appointed body", it was a self regulation operation funded by the industry.

[BH adds: you are right! Will update accordingly.]

Sep 3, 2014 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Hird

Surely what's good for the Goose is also good for the Gander. There is nothing to stop any or all contributors here complaining about WWF and Greenpeas adverts which are economic with the actuality (they normally are). Advertisements should be responsible, frightening children with factually incorrect information cannot be considered responsible.

Our purpose and strategy

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media.
Our purpose and ambition

Our purpose is to make advertisements responsible and our ambition is to make every UK ad a responsible ad.
What we do is important

We’re passionate about what we do because responsible advertisements are good for people, society and advertisers.

Sep 3, 2014 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

See what happens when reasoned companies try to play the leftist environmental card - they still get shat on.

Me I would've just said:

"Shale gas - there is loads of it "quote from geological survey" and application of the same technology in the US has led to lower gas prices "quote from some economic assessment". Isn;t that great news for everyone."

Sep 3, 2014 at 12:46 PM | Unregistered Commentercd

" ...much warmer winter weather,"

And when the winter weather is cooler??

Sep 3, 2014 at 12:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

I've had a complaint ongoing with the ASA since April this year. In July, after several exchanges between me, the ASA and the advertiser, the ASA committee upheld my complaint. Under embargo, I wasn't allowed to say anything to anyone until the decision was due to be made public in early August. At the last minute, the advertiser had the case suspended, pending review by the "independent reviewer", retired civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips. After four weeks, I asked as to the progress of this matter. His 140 word reply completely avoided my question, only saying that he looked at cases in order of receipt. This means, for five months, the advertiser has still been able to make misleading, unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims.

What also concerns me is that a decision by the ASA committee can be overruled by an individual sitting on his own.

Sep 3, 2014 at 1:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoland Smith

I wonder what the ASA would make of the claims by Good Energy? I was at a festival at the weekend and their trade stand advertising claimed they supplied 100% renewable energy. Their website home page states:

At Good Energy, our electricity comes from local, natural sources like Cornish sunshine, Scottish wind and Welsh rain. So simply switching to our supply cuts your home’s carbon footprint and takes the UK closer to a cleaner, greener future.

So how do they keep the power on at night when it's not windy? And do they use a separate grid to supply homes?

Sep 3, 2014 at 2:32 PM | Registered Commenterthinkingscientist

"we noted that this was not a universally accepted opinion"

I challenge anyone to come up with a universally accepted opinion.
There is something very strange about the phrase, "a universally accepted opinion"

Sep 3, 2014 at 2:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

Pre ASA: "Carling, probably the best beer in the world"

Post ASA:"Carling, universally accepted as the best beer in the world". I see a problem with that...

Sep 3, 2014 at 2:59 PM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

Oh yes , Chris Smith a guy whose constant inability to show any ability has never stopped him from getting well-paid jobs for doing frankly nothing .
I wish I knew how they do it.

Sep 3, 2014 at 4:35 PM | Unregistered Commenterknr

In American free-speech law, "commercial speech" (i.e. advertising) is treated significantly differently from "political speech".

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can and does regulate advertising, coming down on companies for falsehoods in their advertising.

That said, I have never seen the FTC issue a ruling remotely this ridiculous. But given the way Obama has politicized other regulatory agencies, I'm not saying it couldn't happen here...

Sep 3, 2014 at 5:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

@roland. Is the embargo worth the paper it is wrtten on unless it is backed by the court?

Sep 3, 2014 at 7:33 PM | Unregistered Commenterclovis man


"What also concerns me is that a decision by the ASA committee can be overruled by an individual sitting on his own."

It is actually worse than that. If they ensure the "independent" reviewer has a large backlog then they can defer any judgement for as long as necessary.

Sep 3, 2014 at 8:40 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

The ASA have also come down against protestors who have put out untrue material in their literature see here for example.

Sep 3, 2014 at 8:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterDerek

What we do is important

We’re passionate about what we do because responsible advertisements are good for people, society and advertisers.
Who wrote this illiterate nonsense? As a former copywriter in the biz, I would have been shot at dawn for something like that.

Firstly, an arbiter is supposed to be dispassionate, and being passionate should automatically exclude you from the game.

Secondly, WTF is a "responsible" ad? Responsible to whom? For what? About what? It's gibberish.

Then, we get to "good for people, society and advertisers." So, there is a difference between "people" and "society"? Well, in a Leftist utopia, there probably is. No prizes for guessing which is more important.

That said, as I noted in Unthreaded recently, there must be a rat in the ranks somewhere at the ASA. They recently declared that DECC's ads about the government's "Green Deal" were misleading:

Sep 3, 2014 at 8:42 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

html did not seem to work in my earlier post so here is the link:

In this case the ASA were right to intervene as you can see.

Sep 3, 2014 at 8:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterDerek

10:30 AM | Cheshirered

Yep ... not half - "wrong type of rain man" strikes again - and it's the exact opposite of Savant Syndrome :-)

Talk about ahem... inconsistent.... - when instructed to talk up enhanced gas recovery he "obliged" - but one has to suspect it was through gritted teeth.

The epitome of where an overdose of hubris ends up by the look of it.

The ASA is simply jobs for the boys....Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? - what a mess.

Sep 3, 2014 at 11:00 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Wow. Britain is further down the rabbit hole than I thought. Scarry stuff. How did society get here. Wow.

Sep 4, 2014 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterRandizzle

Re. Sep 3, 2014 at 9:43 AM | Stuck-Record
I too complained to the ASA about the 'drowning puppies' propoganda (the only time I have ever done so) back in 2009. I stll have a copy of their acknowlegement, which said that there were so many complaints that they couldn't respond individually, but sent a summary list of the complaints received:

1. the ad was political in nature and should not be broadcast;
2. the theme and content of the ad, for example the dog drowning in the storybook and the depiction of the young girl to whom the story was being read, could be distressing for children who saw it;
3. the ad should not have been shown when children were likely to be watching television;
4. the ad was misleading because it presented human induced climate change as a fact, when there was a significant division amongst the scientific community on that point;
5. the claim “over 40% of the CO2 was coming from ordinary everyday things” was misleading;
6. the representation of CO2 as a rising cloud of black smog was misleading;
7. the claims about the possible advent of strange weather and flooding, and associated imagery in the ad, in the UK were exaggerated, distressing and misleading
As I recall, my particular complaint was summarised in item 5. The suggestion was that by turning off lights and turning down central heating etc, we (in the UK) could impact global warming, which even if you believe in AGW is clearly nonsense. They gave the highly misleading impression that such things caused 40% of all CO2 emissions rather than just human emissions.
Unfortunately I can't locate the adjudication, but needless to say my complaint was not upheld. I haven't bothered since. A further point was that the adjudication came after the campaign had run it's course anyway so would have made little difference. Adjudications upholding complaints used to be broadcast occasionally but I haven's seen one for a long while. I think they were usually against commercial companies, I am not surprised that they are not keen on criticising the establishment.

Sep 4, 2014 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJim Turner

Pretty much every "green" claim in advertising could be taken to the ASA.

But one must ask, "what's the bloody point?"
The "green" claim is an appeal to emotion, not reason.

Sep 4, 2014 at 3:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterkellydown

The only reason Americans are taken aback is because they don't know what their own government does.

There is one man in the USA that gets to decide what can and can't be on a beer label. One guy who rules an entire industry and most people have never heard of him.

That's just one of many similar positions buried deep within the executive branch's sprawling beuracracy. The spirit of "seperation of powers" has been demolished by a long tradition of unlegislated regulation.

Sep 5, 2014 at 5:42 AM | Unregistered Commenteraparition42

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