The £15m scandal our libel laws are silencing

Alan White explains how critics of "retail loss prevention" - suing shoplifters - are being threatened with writs.

This is a story you won’t have read too much about, for reasons which will become clear. It starts at the turn of the century, when British high street stores began to allow a number of firms to make “civil recovery” demands for the administrative costs of processing shoplifting cases.

This practice is known as retail loss prevention, and it involves suing thieves in the civil courts. It seems reasonable enough - why should a shop or supermarket lose out just because they’ve caught someone committing a crime? Over the years, the industry grew. Citizens Advice reports that, since 1998, over 750,000 people have received letters demanding substantial sums as compensation for alleged shoplifting or employee theft. Civil recovery firms started to move into other areas. Hotel chains began to use them to chase customers who’d violated their non-smoking policy. Private parking firms went after people who’d violated their restrictions.

And over the years, a clear problem began to emerge. People were being pressed for costs despite not being found guilty of any crime. In one case, a young mother whose toddler opened a drink without paying received a bill for £87.50 for “staff and management time, administration and apportioned security costs”. A typical case was Sam’s. Aged 19, he was dismissed from his job with Tesco in July 2008, for the alleged theft of £4 cash from a till. He subsequently received a letter demanding £191.50, broken down as: £4.00 for the value of “the goods or cash stolen”, £112.50 for “staff and management time”, £33.75 for “administration costs”, and £41.25 for “security and surveillance costs”. Despite criticism from a QC and the Citizens Advice Bureau, the companies insisted that there were civil courts “precedents” which support such claims.

The complaints began to stack up on consumer forums, and the BBC's Watchdog ran a short feature. Oddly, whenever consumers stood their ground, the costs claims rarely seemed to be taken any further. According to Citizens Advice, of the more than 600,000 demands seemingly issued since 2000, only four unpaid demands have ever been successfully pursued in the county court by means of a contested trial.

Citizens Advice began to catalogue a steady stream of cases - no coincidence that they coincided with a rise in self-service checkouts. It soon put together one report, then another, showing that many of these cases were the result of consumer errors, and that many who were guilty had mental health problems and were caught taking extremely low value goods. As Denis MacShane MP told Parliament this year: “In essence, 90 per cent of all shoplifting in our stores is organised by gangs. About 8 per cent or 9 per cent is done by in-house stealing. The tiny one per cent is done—frankly, for the most part—by rather sad people.”

Now the story goes in a different direction. It’s about one civil recovery case, involving two girls who were caught shoplifting from a high street retailer. What happened next is, for the time being, detailed on their lawyer’s website: the case went to court, and the retailer’s assertion that its total losses were almost £137.50 was chucked out of court. Under cross-examination, a security manager agreed the incident had taken one hour and ten minutes to deal with - at a cost of £17, not £98.55 as claimed. He was carrying out his job, not distracted from a core function of it.

What’s interesting is what happened next. The retailer’s agent, Retail Loss Prevention (the biggest firm in the business), instructed libel lawyers Schillings to demand the law firm remove the above link from its website. And this wasn’t the only threat issued by Schillings, who also accused a national official of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Richard Dunstan, of "orchestrating" a three-year long "sustained campaign of harassment and defamation" against it and its staff, asking it to remove the two reports linked to above, and sent letters on behalf of Retail Loss Prevention to various websites.

One of them was the law site Legal Beagles. Like the other parties, it refused to accede to Schillings’ demands. Instead, it decided to publish the letter on its site. So far, this is where the story begins and ends. As MacShane said: “This is a £15 million racket used by a lot of major companies—corporate groups — such as Boots, TK Maxx, Primark, Debenhams, Superdrug and Tesco. They are all shops that we use.”

That the media has shied away from a detailed investigation of the industry, most likely for fear of vexatious litigation, is one thing. And no doubt the PR men have helped out too - does this Wikipedia entry strike you as entirely objective? But that the Citizens Advice Bureau should face legal threats merely for doing its job should tell you all about this country’s ludicrous libel laws. No doubt the billionaires who've journeyed here to settle writs over the last few years have pumped a little into our economy whenever they’ve popped into Harrods. The question is exactly how much we’re willing to receive for our freedom of speech.

Are shops over-zealous about thieves? Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Just you wait – soon fake news will come to football

No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

So it is all settled: Cristiano Ronaldo will be arriving at Carlisle United at the end of the month, just before deadline day. It all makes sense. He has fallen in love with a Herdwick sheep, just as Beatrix Potter did, and like her, he is putting his money and energy into helping Cumbria, the land of the Herdwick.

He fell out with his lover in Morocco, despite having a private plane to take him straight from every Real Madrid game to their weekly assignation, the moment this particular Herdwick came into his life. His mother will be coming with him, as well as his son, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr. They want to bring the boy
up communing with nature, able to roam free, walking among the lakes and fells.

Behind the scenes, his agent has bought up CUFC and half of Cumbria on his behalf, including Sellafield, so it is a wise investment. Clearly CUFC will be promoted this year – just look where they are in the table – then zoom-zoom, up they go, back in the top league, at which point his agent hopes they will be offered megabucks by some half-witted Chinese/Russian/Arab moneybags.

Do you believe all that? It is what we now call in the trade fake news, or post-truth – or, to keep it simple, a total lie, or, to be vulgar, complete bollocks. (I made it up, although a pundit on French TV hinted that he thought the bit about Ronaldo’s friend in Morocco might not be too far-fetched. The stuff about Beatrix Potter loving Herdwicks is kosher.)

Fake news is already the number-one topic in 2017. Just think about all those round robins you got with Christmas cards, filled with fake news, such as grandchildren doing brilliantly at school, Dad’s dahlias winning prizes, while we have just bought a gem in Broadstairs for peanuts.

Fake news is everywhere in the world of politics and economics, business and celebrity gossip, because all the people who really care about such topics are sitting all day on Facebook making it up. And if they can’t be arsed to make it up, they pass on rubbish they know is made up.

Fake news has long been with us. Instead of dropping stuff on the internet, they used to drop it from the skies. I have a copy of a leaflet that the German propaganda machine dropped over our brave lads on the front line during the war. It shows what was happening back in Blighty – handsome US soldiers in bed with the wives and girlfriends of our Tommies stuck at the front.

So does it happen in football? At this time of the year, the tabloids and Sky are obsessed by transfer rumours, or rumours of transfer rumours, working themselves into a frenzy of self-perpetuating excitement, until the final minute of deadline day, when the climax comes at last, uh hum – all over the studio, what a mess.

In Reality, which is where I live, just off the North Circular – no, down a bit, move left, got it – there is no such thing as fake news in football. We are immune from fantasy facts. OK, there is gossip about the main players – will they move or will they not, will they be sued/prosecuted/dropped?

Football is concerned with facts. You have to get more goals than the other team, then you win the game. Fact. Because all the Prem games are live on telly, we millions of supplicant fans can see with our eyes who won. No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

I suppose the Russkis could hack into the Sky transmissions, making the ball bounce back out of the goal again, or manipulating the replay so goals get scored from impossible angles, or fiddling the electronic scoreboards.

Hmm, now I think about it, all facts can be fiddled, in this electronic age. The Premier League table could be total fiction. Bring back pigeons. You could trust them for the latest news. Oh, one has just arrived. Ronaldo’s romance  with the Herdwick is off! And so am I. Off to Barbados and Bequia
for two weeks.

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Biscuit Girls” (Ebury Press, £6.99)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge