Time to make fake news big news


by Antony Begley

The news from Morrisons that it has committed to avoiding the ‘fake farm’ practice so popular with supermarkets seems to have taken the world by surprise, judging by the amount of print and online coverage it has received (an example from The Guardian is here), but it really shouldn’t be that surprising. Supermarkets and discounters have been faking it on lots of fronts for as long as we can all remember. Offering the public a fake version of what they’re actually looking for is a well-trodden path for the mults, keen to meet shopper demands but without the expense of actually meeting them properly.

Food provenance is the latest example, and a very good one at that. When it became clear that local and regional sourcing (routinely practised by local retailers for decades) was becoming ‘a thing’ for modern shoppers who were keen to support the local economy and be sure of where their food was coming from, the mults and discounters quickly devised low-cost methods of appearing to tick that particular box. Suddenly big stores across the country were awash with Saltires and nice murals showing some farmer in Auchtermuchty that produces some of the meat or fresh produce available in that particular store (and usually available in many other stores in Scotland). It was a low rent and, in my opinion, misleading if not plain dishonest response to a genuine consumer demand. The fact that may shoppers can be persuaded to buy into the PR is another story entirely. *facepalm*

It’s not quite on a par with Trump’s fake news issue, but it’s not that far removed from it.

Morrisons’ decision to go public on the practice of inventing fictitious farms to lend fresh produce a rustic, home-spun, trustworthy quality it doesn’t merit is a welcome move because everyone is at it: Tesco, Asda, Morrisons. And even when the farms mentioned were genuine, the mults have admitted that much of the produce badged up as, say, Tesco’s Rosedene Farms or Redmere Farms brands, weren’t actually produced on those farms. It’s just lying, plain and simple.

The latest fake farms furore only happened after pressure from the NFU who were concerned about how the mults were being allowed to get away with it in the first place. The NFU’s Deputy President, Minette Batters, said: “In our view it is important that product names and descriptions on packaging are clear, accurate and do not mislead consumers.”

But it’s not just in food provenance that the mults have previous for faking it. Community involvement is another area where a lot of box ticking goes on, but far less active, engaged community activity happens. Throw a couple of hundred quid at sponsoring a local football team or let the Girl Guides come in on a Sunday to pester customers for donations while making an unholy hash of packing their bags for them. Low or no cost. Minimum inconvenience. Community involvement box ticked. The same goes for charity donations, either collected from consumers or coerced out of suppliers then handed over in front of the local press in the name of the supermarket. Charity box ticked.

It’s the insincerity that’s most galling, particularly as many local retailers in villages, towns and cities across Scotland put so much effort into engaging with their communities on a deep, profound and often very moving level. It’s just the pits for hard-working, emotionally-engaged retailers like this to be trumped, if you’ll pardon the expression, by a faceless, soulless, relentless supermarket PR machine.

It’s time practices like this were exposed more regularly.