Sgt Bulko's ABC scam is no laughing matter

 Sgt Bulko’s ABC scam is no laughing matter

A penny for the thoughts of executives at the ABC’s magazines section. With the release of the latest circulation figures, their job suddenly seems to have become much more complicated, thanks, in the main, to the smallest coin of the realm.

One penny was, of course, the cover price that Richard Desmond decided to ‘charge’ for copies of a cut-down version of OK! sold alongside his newly acquired Sunday Express back in March. Rarely can spending a penny have caused such a torrent of consternation for so many.

Perhaps Desmond is a fan of that master of scams played by Phil Silvers in the US sitcom. Sergeant Bilko would certainly salute Sergeant Bulko’s cunning ploy.

And the reaction it provoked. Arch rival Hello!’s first response — a cry of ‘foul’ – was followed swiftly by a copycat marriage of convenience with The Mail on Sunday, the first of many circulation department scrambles to see how the ABC rules could be stretched.

Only now, with the publication of the January to June figures, can the full implications of the penny war – and its resulting new enthusiasm for ‘bulking up’ – be understood.

Well, understood by some. Suddenly, the exercise of reading the six-monthly ABC tables – once so simple that even Bilko’s dopey sidekick Private Doberman could have done it – has become one that can only be tackled by a crack squad of statisticians, preferably issued with Army-regulation canisters of scepticism before going over the top.

The top-line sales figures, until now a relatively accurate indicator of a magazine’s success, must now be qualified by a number of other complicated factors. Free copy of Now with this month’s Marie Claire, anyone?

The ABC stresses that it can’t alter its rules on a whim. It needs the whole industry to agree on any new formula for calculating true magazine sales. It has already made a significant change by insisting that an ‘active purchase’ must cost at least 20 per cent of the normal cover price.

But its admission that further rule changes are likely to come under discussion in the coming weeks is a good indicator of the anger felt by many publishers.

For the audits to retain their credibility, clarity is vital. The newspaper world, where bulks are much more an established part of the landscape, knows the damage that can be caused to the industry by a single abuse of the system. Ask anyone affected by the Birmingham Post & Mail’s deceptions last year.

Time for Bulko to make a tactical withdrawal. At the double.

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