Suing their wrappers off; journalists upset Tesco

You can sue the pants off someone, but you cannot sue the wrapping off.


Yesterday I blogged about Tesco’s noble aspiration which was to help its customers tackle climate change. The way Tesco decided to help its customers tackle climate change was to label twenty items that it sells with a carbon footprint. There, job done! Tesco can get back to its core business in many parts of the world, including Thailand, knowing that they have helped their customers tackle climate change.


Tesco has been assisted in this marvellously informative scheme by the Carbon Trust who seemed to have designed a logo of a black footprint with so many grams of carbon per product that will feature on these twenty chosen products The Carbon Trust has also devised the methodology to make these important calculations. In matters like this, the chaps always help the chaps, so that all the chaps can claim that they are helping poor misguided shoppers make the right choice by going to Tesco and picking the right stuff off their shelves.


Perhaps Tesco will be introducing these labels in all their stores, including those in Thailand where Tesco own a supermarket business. Two Thais were critical of Tesco; one gentleman, Mr Jit Siratranont, is vice general secretary of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and another, Mr Kamol Kamoltrakul, is a business writer. They have apparently libelled Tesco so badly (according to Tesco) that nothing short of a £16 million lawsuit will suffice to remedy the damage that the supermarket has suffered.


It has been difficult to find out exactly what criticisms have caused Tesco to issue these proceedings to protect their reputation but I understand they include allegations that Tesco’s expansion has been aggressive and at the expense of local very small businesses. I cannot imagine that Tesco expect to collect any serious money from this litigation because the amounts claimed are far beyond the resources of the defendants; it is simply “pour encourager les autres”. I shall be surprised if Tesco can recover their legal costs.


I can see nothing worth suing for in the allegations because every multinational business wants to grow. Every business aims to become a monopoly- that is the point of a business, as the late Mr Robert Maxwell pointed out. You can only grow by either creating a new market for a new product (and people cottoned on to food and soap some time ago) or by making your own products in the market more attractive than the competitors, taking business off them.


It seems that another journalist Ms Nongnart Harnwilai is also being sued for defamation by Tesco, and again I have found it hard to find out exactly why Tesco was so damaged by Ms Harnwilai’s allegation that “Tesco Lotus does not love Thais”. Maybe I have got this wrong but I do not expect my supermarket to love me or any group of people. I expect them to attempt to make as much money as possible. Surely that is their objective, their core value, regardless of what their websites claim. I would be rather offended if Tesco claimed to love me.


Tesco have also sued the Guardian newspaper for libel, claiming damages for suggesting that Tesco were using offshore structures to avoid large amounts of tax. Some of Tesco’s customers have objected to their money going to into an off shore account and Tesco will use this as evidence that they have suffered a loss. I have represented many clients in litigation and I cannot remember any client that wanted to drag its customer into the litigation, even by way of being a witness. Traditional wisdom holds that you do not involve customers in third party disputes.


It seems to me that Tesco has lost the plot with all these writs. It is all very strange. If I can remember my law, defamation is actionable where the words used bring or expose the injured party into ridicule odium and contempt. I for one would not think one iota less of Tesco if they were to organise their tax affairs in such a way so as to pay less tax.


Tax avoidance has been a time honoured activity of taxpayers in the UK for hundreds of years undertaken by the nobility, the landed gentry, business people, the extremely wealthy with assistance from armies of accountants and lawyers and it is perfectly legal. It seems to me that every multi national corporation avoids tax, if it can. I see nothing contemptible in it.


What should we think then of Tesco and its reputation? When it comes to forming opinions of people or multinationals look at what they do, not at what they say. Tesco is not helping people to tackle climate change by offering for sale over-packaged food. However, of course, the blame is with us, the customers, not with the business that simple responds to what the customers want; the customers want over packaged food and if they did not want it Tesco would not be selling it; the customers want cheap alcohol, cigarettes and a whole host of undesirable things and Tesco also offers them for sale.


That is why I simply cannot understand what Tesco hopes to achieve with all these writs. Most people would never have heard of the criticisms of Tesco Lotus in Thailand had Tesco not issued writs against journalists which has upset other journalists, who themselves love a bit of libel. Richard Ingrams who used to edit Private Eye held that journalists were very sensitive to pieces in the paper about themselves.


Tesco, when all is said and done, is not a corporate religion, or a way of life, or a repository of virtue, or a leading thinker, or a charity, or a college, or a friend or a philosophy. It is a chain of shops where you can buy stuff usually over packaged in lighting conditions that hurt my eyes.


Tesco may promulgate an environmental code, a social code and so forth as core values but its object is to make a profit for its shareholders, no more, no less. If can make more profit by being “green” it will be green. If it could make more money by getting rid of excessive packaging, it would do that.


2 Responses

  1. I came across your blog on Technorati. Nice site layout. I will stop by and read more soon.

    Mike Harmon

  2. Maybe if Tesco decide to expand further into the south east Asian market in the Philippines for example and Tesco behave in a similar manner as they have done in Thailand, and the UK I understand that I will not be able to say:

    “Tesco Lotus does not love Filipnos and is not energy efficient”

    …because obviously it would be libelous for me to say so and Tesco would take legal action against me.

    Maybe before I repeat I would need to confirm for myself the allegations [in the UK press] that Tesco have trucks taking farm produce [chickens] from the far North of the UK to the South of the UK to be processed and then back North again to a store near to where the produce originated.

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