The ASA has issued a pompous statement which seems to miss the main point: they haven't got any grounds to investigate and even if they had what they think of as a right to investigate, they still haven't got any power to do anything except, maybe, to hand it to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who are most unlikely to want to tangle with this one. The EHRC prefer to stick to beating up fond old couples such as Mr and Mrs Bull down in Cornwall (and then claiming they didn't mean to launch a second attack for more money), and calling Christianity an infection.
We can all investigate. A little more about the ASA is useful to collect.
Firstly, it's not an "authority". It's a company as registered at Companies House, specifically:
ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY LIMITED (THE)
MID CITY PLACE
71 HIGH HOLBORN
Company No. 00733214
The members of the council are all listed on the website with short clickable biographies. The best known are Lord Smith - that's Chris Smith who, although gay, has never made any secret of it and has never allowed it to be an issue in any of his work, at least as far as I know, Professor Andrew Motion best known for his poetry (some of which is OK but not as good as Pam Ayres), and Martin Narey, best known for heading up Barnardos and signing-off the sort of ads which stigmatize white men as child beaters.
The people who run the organization day to day include
Miles Lockwood, Director of Complaints and Investigations
Miles joined the ASA in September 2010 and is responsible for leading the complaints and investigations teams, the core function of the ASA, who dealt with over 28,000 complaints last year. He studied History at the University of Nottingham and then obtained two post graduate certifications in Law at Nottingham Law School. Qualifying as a solicitor in 1998, he worked in commercial legal practice and specialised in general litigation and dispute resolution matters.Lockwood's top-class biography continues. It is hard to believe that he signed off a poorly screened complaint which is not within the scope of their own code, so perhaps he didn't know about it.
It isn't the first time that the ASA has had a spat like this with Christians. At the end of March 2012, the ASA took issue with a standard Christian leaflet where they offer to pray over you in the belief that this can promote healing. The group who gave out the leaflet also included a sensible health warning about visiting your doctor. There was no suggestion that they tried to coerce belief, cozen money out of people or prevent people getting proper medical attention.
This didn't stop the ASA sticking their noses in, attempting to make themselves arbiters of the printed material which barely qualifies as promotional. There's nothing unusual about healing services; the ASA appears to be trying to claim the right to tell churches they can't use the word 'healing' at all.
Since Christians have the unfortunate trait of often being irritating they don't get the support they deserve when their right to freedom of expression is infringed. Blogs which should have known better failed to identify this as an freedom of speech and religious expression argument, thinking this was about a literal interpretation of what everyone with a scrap of education knows is poetic language and religious belief, both of which are entitled to protection and are matters of opinion, not fact. Why isn't Andrew Motion doing something brave like protecting freedom of speech?
The ASA used its considerable industry funding to lean on a bunch of harmless street pray-ers whose earnest desire is that my knee will be fixed without surgery by divine intervention. Let 'em try, I say. If it works, I'm better off, if it doesn't I'm no worse off and I'm still on the waiting list. How strange that the hedge-witches, shamen and priests all accept that it is my choice whether to go for surgery or not but the ASA thinks it knows what is best for me.
The disputes over faith healing and what can be said about it stem in part from the antagonism in the alternative health-care field. This was foolishly increased when the chiropractors decided to try to use lawfare (good word, I just heard it) to silence their critics.
They attempted to sue Simon Singh for libel and such is the state of our laws that they were able to be a significant nuisance until finally dropping the case in April 2010. It went all the way to the Appeal Court, though, before they were told that Singh's original article was comment, not fact, and that he was entitled to express his opinion.
There is a suggestion from one blog campaign that the ASA isn't up to much, but it is confusing because it attempts to be over-clever and simply does not understand the ASAs limitations. Then again, the ASA doesn't understand its limitations.
The website asa-rocks.org has a series of pages expressing its rage over quackery and the apparent inability of the ASA to do anything about it. I share some of their anger but they don't seem to understand how difficult it is to draw that line, especially since some medical doctors have engaged in quackery and misrepresentation, often in places which do matter such as when they are expert witnesses in court.
In climate science we've had the epic quackery of Global Warming but so far the ASA hasn't sent any letters to UEA asking them too explain themselves or tear out pages of their undergraduate prospectus which presents them as having a science faculty.
The bugaboo of asa-rocks is asa-sucks, the defunct campaign which noticed that the ASA was not sticking to the process of receiving a complaint and investigating, but instead had got in bed with another campaign, the Nightingale Collaboration, to systematically challenge the alternative services sector. When this was revealed, the ASA dropped the association.
The Nightingale Collaboration makes some good points, but as it was fuelled by reasonable outrage at the use of the libel laws against Singh, its main purpose was to return-volley lawfare against the Chiropractors by finding something they can't substantiate then reporting them to the Trading Standards which does have some legal standing, unlike the ASA. This summary gives a fair over-view of both sides. The chiropractors should not have played rough if they didn't want the same level of response.
The other alternative care providers generally took a robust attitude to the ASA, advising that on receipt of a letter you should consider binning it as junk mail or perhaps making a complaint to the ASA that you have been contacted by an organization which misrepresents itself as having legal authority.
Technically, the ASA could take issue with every beauty parlour whose facials claim to rejuvenate the skin. That is an impossible claim to substantiate for prior reasons based on entropy. However, the ASA would find itself even less popular if it decided to go after Madame Rene; do they seriously think her customers expect her to do miracles? Her customers are not interested in hearing they look like WH Auden and there is little she can do about it; they expect Madame Rene to get on with the aromatherapy massage and for the ASA to mind its own beeswax.
I will decide for myself what I think of god-botherers and beauticians.
Update: In which Cranmer fisks the ASA interim statement and it emerges that the group who were supposed to have complained are very cross because they didn't, although one of them complained about about a separate magazine.
Update: Bucko points out that the ASA fail to comply fully with company law.