Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall again, taking his annual break from being an irritating bastard so he can talk a bit of sense about chickens, remarkably abstaining from going over the top and self-righteous about it. It seems HFW is capable of making interesting TV, and this kind of thing just about compensates for the scabies-like irritation of his usual guff.
River Cottage is a saccharine, utopian vision of farming, in which Hugh is free to till the land without the pressure of the industry and overheads looming over his shoulder as most normal farmers would experience. Instead he’s able to drain his book-royalty fund to pay for all the technicalities, making it nauseating, patronising bollocks.
But his chicken campaign has some relevance and feels current, raising it above the River Cottage standard. In this latest instalment, HFW buys a single share for about 500 quid in order to be able to speak to major shareholders and try to convince them that the industry standard is to harsh on the bird, and that the much more humane, RSPCA backed Freedom Food standard should be the base level. And it’s hard to argue with him.
Last time round, he was rewarded with only a bloody nose when trying to change Tesco’s ways as the marketing bods at the top of the tree steadfastly refused to speak to him, so it followed that by buying a share he would get more of a say. Hard to know how much of what followed was pantomime contrivance, but it was all good fun.
One fact that shocked me, early on, (though it probably shouldn’t have) is that Friends of the Earth have shares in Tesco. Isn’t that a bit weird? Probably not. You just expect a charity to make ethical decisions when it comes to investing – but then you remember ethics don’t really come into economics.
Anyhow, the first move was explaining his case to some shareholders, City types, in pinstripe with public-school floppy hair. All were left unmoved. The deadly silence that followed HFW’s little speech spoke volumes on why this wouldn’t actually, physically make a difference and could only succeed as a point well made. The welfare of a chicken, pecked-half bald as it sits in its own shit is of very little interest to people who want to put some money somewhere and return a few weeks later to find it’s doubled. Chickens be damned when cash can be reaped. Eventually, one long haired suit-wearer saw the correllation between Tesco’s reputation and the improvement of standards, but the reputation card didn’t work last time round, so was unlikely to this time.
The high point, for me, was HFW’s attempts to speak to someone of importance from Tesco on camera. Instead, he was greeted by a Media Spokesperson, or Head of Talking On Telly as she was dubbed. This creature, both attractive and coldly empty, spoke in wittering circles of sales guff. She repeatedly bleated that Tescos ‘lead the way’ on this topic – a term she had clearly been encouraged to use as it’s such blatantly contrived bullshit, she couldn’t have come up with it herself.
‘Lead the way’ means utterly nothing. Where is ‘the way’? How are they ‘leading’ towards it? Who are they leading? Where will they end up? Why not just say something quantatitive and substantial instead of talking unmitigated shit?
It got worse. One of my pet hates is food packaging and how, these days, it’s virtually impossible to work out where meat came from, what the terms mean and whether the food you’re buying has been fiddled with. Apparently, according to the Media Spokesperson, to have anything resembling a description of conditions, even something as basic as the two words ‘indoor-reared’, would be patronising to the consumer. And if that doesn’t display contempt for the customer, I don’t know what does. You don’t need any more evidence to prove that Tesco aren’t in the least bit concerned by what their customers want (unless it involves undercutting their competitors).
Eventually HFW’s target of converting 75% of shareholder opinion (an impossible task, with the rules set by Tesco) failed, as was destined. But this was a point well made.
The sad thing is, the core customer-base of Tesco – those who may have been influenced into not buying the lower end offal – were probably put off this transmission by the very fact of Hugh’s presence, and will be purchasing two-for-a-fiver chickens as I type these very words…