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They work for us

4th June 2015

I got some more news about the Door-Drop Preference Service. If that doesn't ring any bells, it was a super-duper opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail that was announced, with much fanfare, in November 2011 and which has since been quietly ditched.

For over three years I've been trying to find out why the scheme has never been launched. I've found that the Direct Marketing Association refused to launched the scheme because it feared that the few door-drop companies that are members of the lobby group would cancel their membership if they'd no longer be allowed to 'carpet bomb' the nation. To get out of the deal they argued that DEFRA had committed itself to making non-DMA members, such as publishers of free newspapers, part of the deal between DEFRA and the Direct Marketing Association. Initially, DEFRA rejected this interpretation of what had been agreed but for reasons I don't quite understand (yet) they eventually gave in.

From that moment DEFRA has rejected every request for information I submitted. Only in March this year did they finally confirm that the Door-Drop Preference Service had been scrapped (no public announcement has ever been made). As they had again refused to release any correspondence about the reasons for this decision I submitted yet another Freedom of Information request in April:

I'm writing to request the release of all correspondence DEFRA has had with the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) about an opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail (the 'Door-Drop Preference Service'), covering the period from 7 May 2012 to 31 May 2014. I trust this request will be handled under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

To clarify my request, the 'Door-Drop Preference Service' was part of a voluntary 'Responsibility Deal' between between the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and the so-called 'direct marketing' sector, dated November 2011. A previous request for information about the opt-out scheme (RFI 4791) learned that the DMA told DEFRA in April 2012 that they would not be launching the scheme that month because they felt DEFRA had not done enough to improve the environmental performance of delivery channels that aren't part of the industry's self-regulatory framework. A later request for information (RFI 7052) learned that Defra has since had meetings with, among others, the Professional Publishers Association (PPA) and that these talks have now ended.

My request only covers correspondence between DEFRA and the DMA but does cover every aspect of the opt-out scheme. I'm interested, for instance, in correspondence between DEFRA and the DMA about the meetings DEFRA has had with the likes of the PPA; about how failure to launch the opt-out scheme would impact the 'Responsibility Deal' and how the delay (and subsequent scrapping) of the scheme should be communicated to the outside world.

DEFRA's correspondence with the junk mail lobby

Early last month DEFRA said it needed another 20 working days to deal with my request for information, because of the complexity of your request and the volume of information that you have requested. Today, I finally got the documents. That is, all five of them.

According to DEFRA, the below is all the correspondence it has had with the Direct Marketing Association about the Door-Drop Preference Service between 7 May 2012 and 31 May 2014:

  1. An e-mail dated 11 July 2012, in which someone at DEFRA (all the names of DEFRA employees have been censored – surely the public isn't supposed to know who in the department is making decisions) explains that the organisation was talking with the Newspaper Society and Newspapers Publishers Association (since merged to become News Media Association) and the Professional Publishers Association. DEFRA's aim was to introduce an opt-out for free newspapers, so that people could opt out of receiving them via the Door-Drop Preference Service website, and to improve the targeting of leaflets inserted in newspapers and magazines. The e-mail indicates that little progress had been made but that the discussions were ongoing. The e-mail ends with a rather hopeful question to the Direct Marketing Association:

    I would be grateful if you could indicate whether the commitments we have secured with the NPA/NS thus far are sufficient to enable launch of the opt-out website. Clearly we are keen to avoid further delays as this increases the risk of negative media activity, but appreciate you wish to be confident that other sectors will take similar actions to improve their environmental performance.

  2. On 17 July 2012 the Direct Marketing Association responded to this question by stating that the current view is that we cannot do anything until we have a clearer view on what's on the table from the News Media Association. They proposed to have a meeting in late September.

  3. On 20 July 2012 DEFRA responded. The meeting would go ahead but DEFRA noted it was unlikely that the negotiations with the newspaper publishers would have progressed significantly by that point in time.

  4. On 3 August 2012 DEFRA sent an e-mail to the Direct Marketing Association about a meeting they had had with the Professional Publishers Association. The e-mail states: On the possibility of opt-out they confessed that they weren’t sure where to begin or what was technically possible.

  5. The next – and final – document is a high level update on the Responsibility Deal from the Direct Marketing Association, dated 18 December 2013. The report includes a brief statement on the Door-Drop Preference Service:

    Launch of an improved single opt-out service for unaddressed mail. As none of the other industries had agreed to participate in an opt-out scheme it was agreed that the proposed scheme by the DMA would have negligible effect and negatively impact DMA members so would be postponed.

Food for thought

The documents contain nothing new. They confirm that DEFRA had accepted the Direct Marketing Association's demands and that the demands were impossible. What is interesting is the volume of information I've received. It seems DEFRA is seriously claiming that, for instance, it has no record of discussions with the Direct Marketing Association about the scrapping of the opt-out scheme; how this would affect the so-called responsibility deal and how the failure should be communicated to the public. Similarly, it's hard to imagine DEFRA and the Direct Marketing Association had no contact about the opt-out scheme between August 2012 and December 2013.

I have to admit that I have at times thought about throwing in the towel, much in the same way DEFRA has given up all resistance to the junk mail lobby. I think anyone who reads the information I've received will agree that DEFRA is yet again trying to suppress information – and as an individual citizen there's little you can do against a government department. I will lodge an appeal though, if only to find out just how disingenuous these people are.

I'd like to end with a short quote from Heather Brooke's The Silent State. In the book she points out that government departments spend roughly 75 times more on PR than they spend on dealing with Freedom of Information requests. She also argues that PR and sharing information with the public (that is, the people who pay their salaries) are incompatible:

In the public sphere, perception is reality: it's more important to be seen to do something than actually do it. At least when private companies use PR and advertising they must spend their own money and there are other corporations vying for our business. If a company doesn't give us what we want they face bankruptcy. Public institutions, however, are monopolies. We have no choice but to buy, if not use, their services.

This is the real danger of institutional PR. In the absence of competition it is only through a diversity of opinion and public scrutiny that some level of accountability can exist. PR stifles debate and suppresses opinion through the use of centralised press offices and communication protocols.

This, I believe, goes to the heart of the problem. Until 2012 my Freedom of Information requests were dealt with by the guy who was responsible for the responsibility deal. He was approachable and not afraid to discuss DEFRA's discussions with the Direct Marketing Association. Now, my requests for information are censored by anonymous PR people. When there's good news they'll contact every media outlet in the country, as they did when the Door-Drop Preference Service was announced in November 2011. But when there's bad news they'll do everything to suppress information. It's a nasty and expensive business.

Last updated: 
4th June 2015

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