Beware of creeping censorship from the supermarket chains

Press
diversity will suffer if stores no longer stock titles whose content
they don’t approve of, warns Glynn DavisAs the supermarkets become ever
more dominant, there are growing concerns that censorship is creeping
in, to the point where they will decide what publications go on their
shelves and influence what goes in them.

David Sullivan, owner of
Sport Newspapers, recently printed coupons in the Daily Sport for
readers to send to supermarket bosses, requesting that the title be
stocked. His efforts have won him space in the garage forecourt stores
of Sainsbury’s and Asda but he is still negotiating with Tesco and
remains in an “ongoing war” with Morrison’s.

Sullivan does not
believe the nonstocking is a result of content, but he does believe the
power of the supermarkets is becoming a worry because they are only
willing to stock the highestvolume sellers.

“There are not enough
newsagents to support new titles, so the supermarkets are effectively a
monopoly, which is very frightening. For the good of society they
should stock a broader selection of papers,” he says.

While some
people might be unconcerned about the lack of a Daily Sport in their
local supermarket, they might be more worried about other types of
publications that run the risk of being delisted.

During the
hunting bill debate, for example, a number of managers at Tesco stores
decided not to stock Farmers Weekly, believing it to be pushing a
strong pro-hunting stance, which they opposed. Although it is
understood no evidence was found to suggest that such a de-listing was
condoned by head office management, it appears to have been clearly
accepted as falling within the powers of the individual store managers.
The situation was resolved at a local level.

Scary as it might
seem, this scenario could become an accepted part of dealing with the
supermarkets as they increasingly gain power – aided by the independent
newsagents that are disappearing.

Without the competition from
the remaining independents, the major grocery chains will almost have
the game to themselves. This could come sooner than many people expect
if the Office of Fair Trading decides to scrap the distribution deal
that ensures wholesalers give the same deals to independents as to
large supermarkets. This would see the supermarkets cutting far
superior deals with the wholesalers than would be possible for the
small operators.

A publishing executive, who did not wish to be
named, suggests that censorship would then be inevitable. Her concerns
are mainly based on how the supermarkets have affected suppliers in
markets where they have cornered a significant share. “If they get
control of the newspaper supply chain then censorship will come in.
Changes in the farming industry have been so dramatic that it has lost
its infrastructure.

Globalisation and high volumes are not always the best for choice and consumers,” she says.

Evidence
of censorship is difficult to come by because anybody speaking out
would face the consequences of criticising a major customer.

Censorship
can take two forms: direct and indirect. The latter is much more
difficult to detect because supermarkets can argue that a title is
being de-listed because it has insufficient sales to warrant shelf
space or they can say that there have been a number of complaints about
its content.

A spokesman for Tesco says that decisions on titles are demand-driven and are also based on customers’ comments.

“We
won’t stock a title if some customers find it offensive. Some
complaints will come in and we have to balance this with other
customers wanting it.” As a result of customer feedback it recently
took the decision to move the lads’ magazines onto its top shelves.

Speaking
at a recent debate at the House of Commons, Ian Reeves, editor of Press
Gazette, expressed concern over the decision-making process behind such
censorship and where it could lead. Noting that Marks & Spencer
recently withdrew £3m of advertising from the Evening Standard because
of “negative coverage”, he says it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine
a retailer refusing to stock a newspaper because it did not agree with
its business coverage.

The debate on genetically-modified foods
would be severely limited if the supermarkets threatened the removal
from their shelves of those titles whose editorial stance contrasted
with their own views.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury’s denied that
it censored publications in any way and said that it stocked only
titles its customers wanted to buy. She argues that any contentious
titles (based on their content) were likely to have the weakest demand
and would therefore be de-listed because of their limited sales and not
on content grounds.

“We stopped selling ‘Turkey Twizzlers’
because they weren’t selling, which was well before the contentious
issues over their nutrition content came about,” she says.

The publisher of a “top shelf” lads’ magazine
disagrees and has in the past suggested that supermarkets have been
cultivating a creeping moral majority (certainly in the case of
magazine covers)n and that this was effectively an informal censorship.

However, he is now very reluctant to publicly criticise the supermarkets’

methods: “It is not a good thing to have a go at them. You don’t want to piss them off.”

This
reluctance to air a view against the major grocers – you might call it
self-censorship – is indicative of how powerful they are becoming. And
of the dangers that could be ahead for us all.

Glynn Davis is a freelance jourmalist

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