If the frackers can’t keep to simple rules …

timessmallToday’s Times front page carries an article about a draft ruling made by the ASA on 5 complaints made about a Friends of the Earth Leaflet by fracktastic tag team of The Reverend Roberts and the now discredited Ken Wilkinson.

Interestingly according to ASA procedures, all draft rulings must remain confidential until both parties have been given the time to respond and the ASA council has ruled, so the timing of this revelation (with the Inquiry appeal result imminent) is interesting to say the least.

The Times article contains certain obvious inaccuracies – it suggests that the ASA draft “upholds the complaints against FoE on all four grounds” when the complaint which can be seen on the Rev Roberts vanity blog clearly has 5 separate complaints. The complaints themselves do not match with the claims in Times article (there is, for example, no reference to house prices in the complaint document reproduced on the Rev Roberts’ web site, yet Ben Webster of the Times clearly states that Foe failed to substantiate claims about house prices plummeting) and there is no reference in the article to the involvement of Mr Wilkinson – presumably because his reputation is now in tatters following his vexatious attempts to ruin Mike Hill’s career.

I can’t comment here on the draft ruling as none of us (except for the protagonists) have (or should have) seen it. Here’s the nub though – the ASA has a clear procedure.

A complaint is made. The advertiser is alerted and is invited to respond. If a ruling is considered then a draft ruling is issued to both sides showing the arguments that have been made. Both side then have the opportunity to review this evidence and respond again before, if appropriate, the case goes to the ASA council for review and a ruling may then be made.

In spite of numerous attempts the fracktastic tag team have so far failed to get the ASA to make a single ruling on their multiple complaints against anti-fracking publications, and this one may now have to go the same way. The ASA are very clear about their procedure. Here is what they wrote to me following the draft ruling on my own complaint about Cuadrilla which was finally ruled on in 2013.

The report must stay confidential until Council has adjudicated; at the moment it is not the ASA’s decision on the brochure. We expect both sides in an investigation to keep the report confidential until the publication date, which will be given to you in our closing letter once Council has made their decision. We take a dim view of leaked rulings and if the material is made public in any way at this stage, then we are liking (sic) to withdraw the investigation without any decision by Council or published report.

It is hard to imagine that, as serial complainers to the ASA, the Rev Roberts and Mr Wilkinson were not aware of the requirement to keep this draft ruling confidential, so why would they bounce the ASA into the position of having to “withdraw the investigation without any decision by Council or published report“?

It could of course be that somebody within the ASA, embarrassed by their recent debacle with Greenpeace has fed this information to the Environment Editor of the Times, who has now done his civic duty by publishing it.

More realistically, the Times, who along with sister rag the Sun, are increasingly just the mouthpiece for Mr Murdoch’s interests (which include fracking), agreed to publish a draft report leaked to them by somebody who had seen a copy in order that it could have some impact before the decision on the Cuadrilla / LCC appeal is taken in the next two weeks.

If this is the case it’s rather troubling – it would seem to suggest that the pro-frackers are incapable of keeping to even the most simple guidelines and procedures of the ASA, so what hope do we have of them being able or willing to comply with the rather more complex ones that the Environment Agency will be trying to get them to take notice of?

Their record doesn’t look great so far does it? Here’s a list of alleged breaches by just one company – Cuadrilla.

So, it remains to be seen whether the ASA will allow this flagrant breach of their procedures, or whether they will now kick this vexatious complaint into the long grass, where it deserves to remain. The ASA’s credibility has already taken a bit of  a bashing as regards NGOs with their climb down over the Greenpeace energy price ruling. Being seen to kow-tow to vested interests by allowing the fracking industry and the press to set up a kangaroo court based on its draft rulings isn’t going to do much to improve matters.

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