Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dispatches case against Tesco undermined

Tesco Chief Executive Sir Terry Leahy
Tesco is the UK's and Ireland's biggest supermarket group.

In the UK, with 2,000 stores and 15 million customers a week, it's almost twice as big as its nearest rival. The Channel 4 programme Dispatches on Monday, February 19, 2007, showed how Tesco could soon become even bigger, and asked if this retail giant is abusing its power.

In The Supermarket That's Eating Britain, Ben Laurance pieces together evidence that reveals the true potential of Tesco's expansion plans. In two thirds of Britain, Tesco is already the dominant supermarket.

Dispatches' information shows how that dominance could become even greater. The programme examined the ways in which Tesco avoids paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by exploiting legal loopholes and using complex networks of companies and partnerships here and overseas.

And Dispatches chronicled the links Tesco has forged with New Labour: the programme examines how Tesco has used its connections to exert influence both at Westminster and with local councillors.

The Supermarket That's Eating Britain hears how: councils feel bullied; MPs complain about being put under pressure; and Tesco uses its financial clout to keep its competitors at bay.

The programme also spelled "out the truth behind Tesco's declared commitment to providing schools with sports equipment and computers. And it exposes Tesco's controversial stance over food labelling."

In the tone and demeanour of a prosecutor, Ben Laurance is former editor of Financial Mail on Sunday and The Observer Business section presented his case.

There were some valid issues raised such as land banks and delivery truck disruption in local communities but it struck me that the prosecutorial style zeal undermined the case against Tesco.

The last time that I saw a Dispatches programme was last year when six months undercover work at Ryanair had produced a pretty flimsy indictment. At that time, what occurred to me was that if an undercover camera trailed life in Channel 4 for six months, who knows what it would find also.

When Laurance presented his indictment on Tesco about also gaining from the support of various good causes, I thought of Celebrity Big Brother, that great money spinner arrangement between Channel 4 and its partner Endemol and also the refusal of Channel 4 management to speak on the issue to Channel 4 News.

Maybe it is time for Dispatches to be dispatched?