Marketers are being asked to use their commercial clout to keep U.K. newspapers in line as the British government struggles to set up new guidelines for the press in the wake of the News of the World phone- hacking scandal.
Rupert Murdoch's Sunday tabloid was shut down last July after a large group of marketers -- including Ford Motor Co., Mitsubishi, Aldi, Renault, Virgin Holidays, telecom company 02, Halifax Bank, and supermarket chain Sainsbury's -- withdrew advertising from the paper following the discovery that its journalists had years earlier hacked into the cellphone messages of a murdered teenager, Milly Dowler.
A social-media campaign put pressure on advertisers to leave News of the World, and their CEOs' emails were distributed via Twitter and Facebook.
Corruption at the paper and other publications has subsequently been investigated by the U.K.'s Leveson Inquiry into the press' relationship with the public, police and politicians. Revelations about more phone-hacking cases surface regularly, as do stories of reporters' bribing police and public officials.
John Whittingdale, a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party and chair of the House of Commons' Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, is assembling proposals for a system to replace the former Press Complaints Commission, which lacked the power to regulate working practices.
Speaking at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers annual conference this week, Mr. Whittingdale announced that his report on press regulation will include the view that advertisers can be crucial in using the power of their spending to punish media that depart from the rules. His report will be issued next week.
"We're looking at using ISBA to engage with the new Press Complaints Commission to discuss their support of a stronger self-regulatory system to ensure this doesn't happen again," Mr. Whittingdale said, suggesting that newspapers could lose advertiser support if they step out of line.
Ian Twinn, ISBA's director of pubic affairs, said, "Advertisers can be difficult to herd. This is a serious challenge for ISBA and all advertisers. There is a reputational issue for advertisers when a media goes sour, but if advertisers are to play a part in a new press-complaints system, we'd have to be careful that there's no suggestion of involvement with editorial content. We want to support self-regulation, but if the state wanted to regulate the press, we'd walk miles from it."
Mr. Whittingdale wants marketers to advertise only in publications that sign on to comply with the new commission's rules. But Mr. Twinn said he sees marketers as having more of a backup role, in which they would pull ads if a publication flouted the codes.
For its cooperation, the ad industry would also appreciate reciprocal support in other areas in return."If the government would like to use advertisers' media spends to help reinforce better ethical standards in the media, I would like to see a quid pro quo from the government in the form of a continued defense of the principles of self-regulation from all those who would like to see greater curtailment of the freedom to advertise," said Stephen Woodford, chairman and CEO of DDB UK.
Mr. Twinn said that before the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent News of the World boycott, he would not have thought this kind of a move possible. "Advertising is about competition, and if you organize collective boycotts you could end up in court," he said. "Thinking this out is the next step."