Tesco’s Public Relations Disaster
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2008
Tesco’s has a love-hate relationship with the Liberal Democrats that is symptomatic of the ambiguous intercourse the company enjoys with both the public and the media. On several occasions, Tesco’s has generously sponsored receptions at LibDem Party conferences, a gesture much appreciated by those attending. And I’m sure I am only one of hundreds of thousands of LibDem members and supporters who have a Tesco ClubCard and regularly shop in its stores. So I am paticularly dismayed that at times the company pursues a line of action that offends my Liberal principles.
Domestically, that is sometimes related to the systematic acquisition of land, partly to keep it out of the hands of competitors. At other times, it is the stifling effect Tesco super-stores have on neighbourhood shops. Moreover, Tesco’s offshore tax structures have raised some LibDem eyebrows — and landed the Guardian with a libel suit for alleged false reporting of the situation.
But the reason I am moved to blog about a company that I otherwise value is its lunatic decision to sue three of its critics in Thailand for grossly disproportionate amounts of money. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the newspaper columns which provoked Tesco’s ire, and I understand the wish of any enterprise to defend its reputation, but I concur absolutely with the decision of leading fellow members of the writers’ organisation, English PEN, that Tesco’s response to the criticism is more than taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut: it is an assault on freedom of speech. If the defendants in the Thai libel cases are found guilty (under a pretty draconian law, which probably itself needs revising), they risk prison or massive fines, which will bankrupt them. The President and Director of English PEN, Lisa Appignanesi and Jonathan Heawood, as well as the LibDem peer Anthony Lester and leading authors Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, Marina Lewycka and Deborah Moggach, have written an eloquent letter of concern to Tesco’s CEO, Sir Terry Leahy, urging the company to drop these actions. I like Sir Terry and in general I like Tesco’s, so I hope they will take heed. Surely they can see that this is a public relations disaster? You can read further details in today’s Guardian, or in Lisa Appignanesi’s piece on Comment Is Free.