Tesco's "indie" coffee shop should worry defenders of capitalism

Free markets rely on informed choices, and those seem lacking in the case of Harris + Hoole.

There's been a lot of chatter about an article in today's Guardian (by which, I guess, I mean that I've been talking about it a lot). Headlined "Customers criticise 'indie' image of the coffee shops part-owned by Tesco", it details the reaction of customers in North London to their discovery that Harris + Hoole, an independent-looking coffee shop, is actually part of a ten-branch chain, of which 59 per cent is owned by Tesco.

Rupert Neate writes:

"I thought: 'That's very brave, opening up next to Starbucks,'" Bridget Chappell, a full-time mum, said of Harris + Hoole, a new coffee shop in north London next door to a branch of the US behemoth and four doors down from a Costa Coffee.

"I like to try independent shops, and it was really very nice with great coffee," she said. "But when I got home, I looked it up and discovered it was a chain."

The people who are shocked to learn that they've just had a pleasant cup of coffee at a shop part-owned by Tesco have come in for a fair amount of criticism. After all, they clearly don't care about anything that matters, otherwise they'd have been unhappy before they learned the technical fact of the shop's ownership.

More to the point, this is supposed to be what capitalism's about, right? Tesco has identified a desire that customers have, and joined forces with a coffee chain to provide that desire. As the lead barista tells Neate:

We try to be independent. We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.

The question which no-one seems to have addressed is what it is that the customers actually desire. If what they want is an independent-feeling café, with mismatched furniture, blackboards for the menus and stacks of hand-made sandwiches, then Tesco can fulfil that need. But if what they desire is an actual independent café, then Tesco can't profit from that desire without the customer being mislead.

That's not to say that Harris + Hoole is necessarily to blame for those customers' mistake. As its chief executive tells the Guardian when asked about Tesco's stake:

If you Google it, you'll find it. Go to our webpage – it's not hidden. Putting it any more prominently would not reflect who we are as a business.

We can't know conclusively whether customers do desire independence or an independent feel, but my hunch is the former. That's certainly what the three interviewed in the Guardian piece claim, anyway.

The problem is, if you desire independent coffee, that's a relatively tricky desire to satisfy conclusively. You could research the corporate ownership of every coffee shop you go in to, but that would get difficult the first time you needed coffee in a strange city with no internet access. As a result, people have developed proxies to work out whether somewhere is part of a chain or not. Blackboards, mismatched furniture, hand-cut food: these things don't normally scale to a big chain, and so are usually a good indicator that somewhere has at most a couple of branches.

It may not seem that important, but it's pretty key to the claims free markets have for being an efficient way to run things that, when people think they are handing over money for a specific reason, they are in fact doing so. That's why we ban calling something organic when it's not, or slapping a union flag on Danish bacon. That even stretches to things which, in your opinion, may not be a choice that matters. Homoepathy is bunk, but it still would be bad for capitalism if anyone could put "approved by 90 per cent of homeopaths" on their sugar pills without that actually being the case.

But unfortunately for these specific customers, Harris + Hoole didn't mislead them. Purposefully or not, making yourself look like an indie coffee shop is not the same thing as telling customers you are an indie coffee shop.

If ethical consumerism is your bag, you're going to have to start putting a lot more effort into making sure you're doing it right, because these things are only going to get more common.

Baristas take part in a latte art competition. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder