Last Friday, the blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer made a bold claim: “Advertising Standards Authority persecutes His Grace,” the headline announced.
The ASA sent him “all manner of official papers, formal documentation and threatening notices which demand answers to sundry questions by a certain deadline.” The correspondence was part of an investigation into an ad (which you can see here) that appeared on Cranmer’s blog, urging people to sign a petition on behalf of the Coalition 4 Marriage. Complainants said they found the ad “homophobic” and “offensive,” and although the investigation was not into Cranmer specifically, he was required to respond to that particular charge.
I was immediately quite irked by what seemed to me to be an attempt to silence an ad that, in the scheme of things, is no big deal. As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I want to see the debate won by reasoned argument, not by getting someone with a bit of clout to shut the other side up.
On Monday, “His Grace” responded publicly to the ASA. That someone trying to defend himself against charges of homophobia would make a clever pun on “smouldering faggots” was hardly the wisest step, but then the question wasn’t whether Cranmer was homophobic, but whether the ad was worthy of complaints to the ASA and a heavy-handed investigation.
On Wednesday, the ASA responded to the controversy, which by now had expanded beyond the blogosphere and into the mainstream media:
One of the bloggers on whose blog the ads appeared has raised concerns about us contacting him as part of our investigation. We have long found it useful to ask, in confidence, publishers of ads subject to ‘offence’ complaints for their views, because they can give us a valuable insight into whether or not their readers are likely to be offended. They are not the subject of our investigation, as we have made clear to them in this case, and they are not compelled to respond.
Valuable insight? Not compelled to respond? This did not sound like what Cranmer had claimed, or what I understood to be the situation, so I returned to read and reread everything Cranmer had written on the subject. I found it difficult to get a clear picture of what exactly the ASA said to Cranmer directly and in what context, however. He had received an email, accompanied by a bundle of 10 pages, all of which he had cited extensively, but there were obvious gaps where he had filled in with his own words. So, via Twitter, I made a very reasonable request: Could he please publish the entire correspondence online?
Can We See the Documents?
It was Cranmer himself who had said, when he first announced his persecution, that he had no intention of respecting the ASA’s request for confidentiality:
He is instructed by the ‘Investigations Executive’ of this inquisition to keep all this confidential.
However, Since His Grace does not dwell in Iran, North Korea, Soviet Russia, Communist China or Nazi Germany, but occupies a place in the cyber-ether suspended somewhere between purgatory and paradise, he is minded to ignore that request. Who do these people think they are?
So confidentiality was not a problem.
“That is the full email,” he replied, “minus the salutation and the sign-off.”
“In your original post? Looks like lots of little quotes, some paraphrasing, etc. Hard to gauge entire email.”
“No, the email is quoted in full. The ‘bundle’ is too big to publish in its entirety. The excerpts are not misrepresented.”
So the reason he won’t publish the attached bundle is because it’s too big. He says the excerpts aren’t misrepresented, but that’s not the point, is it? The whole point is we shouldn’t have to take his word, just as we shouldn’t have to take the ASA’s word. At this stage, I suspected if there were any big misrepresentation, it was from the ASA. But it was obvious the full documentation would confirm it.
“Surely very easy, and v helpful for onlookers, just to post original email in full? Not sure what ‘bundle’ is. … Still difficult to compare email with ASA response; not clear in your first post what’s verbatim & what’s your interpretation.”
“A bundle is ten pages of A4. It really is very simply: verbatim quotes are indented or in quotation marks.”
“So there are gaps, & it would very helpful, & make things very clear, if you filled in gaps by posting entire email verbatim.”
He didn’t seem to be getting it. I understood quite well that indentation and quotation marks indicated a verbatim quote. My problem was with the little gaps. Finally, to make things as easy as possible for the Archbishop, I posted all the quotes to a single document to demonstrate unequivocally that there were gaps.
“Bear with me. Here’s all the direct quotes you provided, minus your own paraphrases: http://t.co/cXy2kMGJ“
“For the third time, is not remotely practicable to post 10 PAGES on a blog. You are free to doubt and disbelieve.”
Here Cranmer really dropped the ball. Having gone to great lengths to argue his case on his blog, now he refuses to argue, and appears to say: Well, I’m not giving you that evidence; you’ll just have to believe me or disbelieve me. Note that again he offers the same reason: It’s impractical.
Then I was suspicious. I didn’t suspect some grand cover-up, but I was puzzled why Cranmer was so resistant. He was clearly making excuses; anyone with enough web savvy to run a blog knows that posting a few documents online is not impractical. Ten pages is not too big. If you can’t upload something directly to your blog, there are thousands of free services where you can easily host ten pages of documentation.
I emailed Archbishop Cranmer and asked once again, hoping I might get a more reasonable response in private. I even offered to host the documents myself if that was a problem. He replied to educate me on the difference between an email and a bundle and to give me another reason why he wouldn’t upload the documents, which he hadn’t even hinted at on Twitter:
You appear to be ignoring the fact (which has now been publicised numerous times) that this bundle contains numerous other pieces of information (recipients’ names, details) which it is simply not appropriate to put into the public domain. As His Grace has made clear, two of these letters are addressed to a third party. It is neither his right nor desire to drag them into his dispute.
It seemed the size of the bundle, twice offered as an excuse, wasn’t relevant at all. It was true that he had said on his blog that the bundle contained material addressed to third parties, but why didn’t simply point to that as the reason in the first place instead of making up unrelated excuses?
He ended his reply, “You are free to go on insinuating that he is concealing facts and misrepresenting the ASA.”
I replied, a bit irritatedly (but in no way impolitely — I’ll publish the emails I sent if anyone thinks that’s relevant), that I had stuck my neck out defending his freedom of speech, which to most of my fellow gays and liberals, or at least the most vocal ones, makes me look like a total sucker. I let him know I wasn’t suspicious at all until he started getting evasive over publishing everything he received from the ASA.
“Not remotely practicable” clearly falls down as a reason. While his second reason is better, it is still unconvincing. He could always simply black out identifying details. Remember, breaking ASA’s request for confidentiality is not in itself a concern for Cranmer at all. If it’s a simple matter of third parties’ sensitive information, he can publish and simply omit names and such where necessary.
What Did the ASA Tell Cranmer, and Is It Persecution?
The Archbishop’s unnecessary awkwardness over all this prompted me to go back and read and reread his claims. The main problem in piecing together exactly what the ASA told Cranmer directly is that all but the short email prefacing the bundle was addressed to other parties. From what I’ve been able to piece together, the following is the only part of the ASA’s communication addressed directly to Archbishop Cranmer:
The attached summarises a complaint we have received about the enclosed advertising, which appeared on the ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ blog. The complaint falls under the harm and offence section of the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing. Please explain why you thought the advertising was suitable for your readers and whether readers have complained to you direct. Please respond by 21st May at the latest. Please keep this correspondence confidential. If you require a postal copy please let me know.
I’m assuming this is the email, as Cranmer told me by email that it was “quoted in full: it consisted of four or five lines of text.” His complaint is that the email is “terse,” that there’s a “tone of asserted authority” and, while they said, “please,” it “reads like a series of demands.” A deadline is “emphatically imposed,” and there’s no mention that he is “not being compelled to respond.”
Agreed. It is fairly terse, and it does present responding as the only option. There’s no suggestion that he’s allowed to ignore the request.
But the strongest and most oft-repeated quotes are from the bundle, none of which, it seems, were directly addressed to Cranmer, which he acknowledges. Yet they form the basis of his claim that he is being persecuted, intimidated, harrassed and threatened. For example:
What you need to do
We need you to respond to the complaint. The CAP Code requires marketers to avoid causing serious or widespread offence. We require you to explain your rationale for the ad and comment specifically on the points raised in the attached complaint notification. We will be happy to receive anything else you think is relevant.
It is for you to decide what to submit, but we will need to see robust documentary evidence to back the claims and a clear explanation from you of its relevance and why you think it substantiates the claims. It is not enough to send references to or abstracts of documents and papers without sending the reports in full and specifically highlighting the relevant parts explaining why they are relevant to the matter in hand.
Yet the way Cranmer represents this information is confusing:
Now, call His Grace obtuse or pedantic if you wish, but this plainly says: ‘We need you to respond to the complaint.’ This statement is not qualified. While these attached letters from the bundle were addressed to a third party, His Grace was manifestly expected to glean from them precisely what was being demanded of him. … Since His Grace has had to assume that parts of this communication (the request to respond to Issue 2) apply to him (it is not specified in the covering email), it is not unreasonable to assume that these demands and deadlines also apply to him. There is manifestly an intimidating request for ‘robust documentary evidence’, followed by a threat that non-response is ‘considered a breach of The CAP Code’ and may itself be subject to investigation.
Without seeing the original documents, how can we say for sure these demands apply to him, especially when Cranmer tells us himself they were explicitly addressed to a third party?
He also takes exception to the following, which appears somewhere in the bundle:
Who we are
The ASA investigates complaints to ensure that non-broadcast marketing communications comply with The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (The CAP Code), prepared by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). We also investigate complaints to ensure that TV and radio advertising complies with The UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (The BCAP Code). The Government, the Office of Fair Trading and the Courts recognise the ASA as the “established means” of regulating non-broadcast advertising.
He finds mentions of “government,” “courts” and “established means” daunting, and so this paragraph, too, becomes part of the evidence that the ASA is persecuting, harrassing, intimidating him. Yet we have no context for these remarks, and we know most of the bundle was addressed to a third party anyway, so the idea these particular terms are being invoked as part of some unique targeting of Cranmer is at best unproven. It doesn’t show the ASA was trying to intimidate him so much as it shows he felt intimidated by them. There’s a big difference.
What Do We Know about Cranmer and the ASA?
We know several parties complained about the Coalition 4 Marriage ad that appeared on Cranmer’s blog, among other websites. We know Cranmer received an email addressed directly to him and several documents addressed to third parties. We know he was asked to look at all these documents and comment specifically on the ad and why he thought it was “suitable for his readers.”
The more I look into what was said to Cranmer directly, the more I think there is some truth to this tweet by @EyeEdinburgh:
Think @His_Grace got frightened by an official-looking email, &now cannot bring himself to admit he was wrong
Archbishop Cranmer was spooked. He got a snotty email from an official body, the combination of terseness, legalese and demands panicked him, and he rallied his troops forthwith.
Is the ASA off the Hook?
While events don’t reflect brilliantly on Archbishop Cranmer, especially after his evasiveness yesterday, the ASA looks far from good. Putting aside hysterical claims of persecution and intimidation, if what I think I can glean for sure from the convoluted information Cranmer has made available is correct, the ASA looks ham-fisted and dishonest.
They sent a request to Cranmer with no indication that his compliance was voluntary. He was given a request and a deadline — how else to interpret that other than a demand? With the email were 10 pages of miscellany with no clear instructions how they related specifically to him.
Cranmer’s mistake was, in the absence of clear guidance, to assume it all applied to him, and to interpret the entire thing as a mean conspiracy against him. He went ballistic, and his champions joined him in denouncing it as persecution.
Somewhere in the crevices of the ASA office, someone just as easily spooked was terrified by this uproar. So the ASA responded immediately with what seems — again, I could say for sure if only a certain churchman would let us see everything in context — like a barefaced lie. They said it was a voluntary opportunity for Cranmer to provide valuable information, but this wasn’t made clear as they claimed. The opposite seemed true.
Nor do the complainants look very good — whoever they are — for reasons I explained when I first wrote about this story. (The Jewish Gay & Lesbian Group is not even among them, contrary to what the ASA claimed; a JGLG member simply complained independently, as the association now makes clear on its website.)
I see Archbishop Cranmer has asked the ASA, via his blog, to allow him to make the documents available. I’ve no idea why he thinks he needs to ask the ASA, since he’s made clear he doesn’t respect their request for confidentiality. I assume the ASA is not in the habit of responding directly to blogs anyway, and I doubt he’s contacted them directly to ask permission.
I suspect if and when we do get to see everything in context, we’ll see that the most intimidating stuff wasn’t addressed to Cranmer at all, and he may, not for the first time, be forced to recant.