Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bread. And circuses

Yesterday, I picked up a wholemeal loaf in our local Percy Ingle. It was £1.67 which, if memory serves me completely correctly, is a rise of around 15-20p in less than a year.

In today's Observer Food Monthly, John Vidal examines the global issue of rising food prices.

This isn't something that most of us don't know, but it seems that food prices are rising particularly fast in the UK.

According to one Paul Donovan, who's the deputy head of global economics at UBS, the biggest Swiss bank, this is because Britain's supermarkets dominate the grocery market with an 80% share, and rely on commodity prices and a general expectation of inflation to get away with it.

Indeed, this was detailed in a UBS report earlier this year.

The supermarkets' representatives, it should be said, deny that they're handing on more of the rise in basic ingredients that they need to to the customer. Of course not. But it does make you wonder how those grocers on the Continent and even in the US manage without hiking prices to the same extent.

Not that we should simply knock the supermarkets. As "middle class lefties" were warned in a rather snooty recent article here, Tesco and the rest provide "decent, affordable food", which is "an old socialist goal" that is "to be applauded, not opposed".

Which clearly helps to prove the claim, mentioned earlier, that the supermarkets are not using grain shortages, commodity prices and inflation expectation to ratchet up prices more than they need to cover their costs. Supermarkets provide "affordable" food. And it's "decent" too.

A lot of the time, it's neither.

To be fair, those responding to the article take the anonymous author to task, but it reeks of the very worst snobbery of New Labour: 'let the plebs eat processed, over-priced junk'.

Not that New Labour were unique in something close to contempt for what used to be known as 'the working class'. It's simply that, since that is precisely who the Labour Party was founded to represent, it is somewhat more irritatingly hypocritical.

There's a fair old amount of snobbery around at present about the News of the World hacking affair, with some liking to finger point about how it's only the same plebs who need Tesco who read such trash. This is totally untrue – as various surveys for all the red tops have shown. Which is why some quite prestigious companies advertise in them.

That in turn creates a delightful circle where some begin to see it as a badge of identity to eat junk and read junk: their aspirations to try anything better bucking under the snobbery of those who wouldn't dream of shopping in Tesco, who only ever hid their News of the World in the pages of the something worthier and who only watch trashy 'reality' TV so that they can stand around the water cooler in the office the following day and condemn.

In the meantime, however, we see the continuing unravelling of affairs News International, with Rupert Murdoch and son James to appear before a Commons committee on Tuesday. The fragrant Rebekah Brooks, who finally was pushed – sorry, fell – on her sword late last week has been excused this ordeal by today's opportune arrest, leaving some to ponder whether this was deliberate.

I hate conspiracy theories – Occam's Razor for me every time – but given all the talk of evidence being shredded, of calls to data storage centres in India to ask for evidence to be dumped, one is entitled to a certain cynicism, methinks, with the police seemingly up to their necks in matters – or certainly facing a raft of questions over their links to News International.

It is a tangled web some people weave.

The hacking affair has become fascinating and far wider in its reach than many had probably seriously imagined. But it remains odd, in that the anger seems to be about the method and not the final product.

In other words, invasions of privacy were entirely acceptable – unless they're achieved by illegal methods. Nobody objected when the NOTW printed stories that it could only have got from Milly Dowler's phone – which they could only have got via illegal means – at the time. So it's not even just celebrities that people want to read detail about.

Some in the media squeal about 'freedom of the press' and 'freedom of speech', without ever explaining why nobody has a right to privacy.

But the reality is that some people's privacy is protected. When did you really hear stories about Murdoch and his family? Or about other press barons? Or bankers and financiers? Or the head of vast corporations?

Even in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, you didn't get such personal detail about those responsible. And barely six months later, it was the same press that such remarkable self control there, which helped create the myth that public sector workers and their 'gold-plated pensions' were to blame.

Elements of the media provide a very useful service in feeding a voracious public with titillation. It seems particularly effective when it's celebrities and footballers – people who have done well for themselves. Many people – including those who don't personally read the tabloids – seem to think that, when you earn a certain amount of money by being in the public eye, you 'deserve' no privacy.

This is utterly illogical. How much money – or how much fame – do you have to have before your private life becomes public property? And how much of that private life at what income level?

Earning £X means that Jo and Joanna Public have the right to know whether you wank? A pay packet of £XXX means that they have the right to know which hand you wank with and who you're thinking about when you do?

Why? Why is this remotely in 'the public interest'? It's simple. It isn't.

But given the rise of inequality in the last 30 years in the UK, it could perhaps be argued that these make nice sacrificial victims for those who I mentioned earlier: those who remain hidden, but who control increasing amounts of our lives; who are not elected and are not accountable to the general public, but who have enjoyed a vast amount of influence over politicians of both major parties for over 30 years.

It's chicken and egg when you start discussing scandal in the press, but as the last 30 years have passed, everything has become increasingly commoditised. Part of the problem is that news itself has become a commodity. So has private life – and mostly, of course, the private lives of others. Which is rather wryly amusing really, given what most people would claim they thought of the Stasi and similar police organisations.

But let's go back to food for a minute. One of the other reasons for shortages is the increasing amount of land that is given over to growing bio-fuels. Why not start by tackling the over-reliance on cars etc? Or would that involve taking on the motor industry?

We see something similar with the energy companies, which are pushing prices for domestic customers through the roof. Privatisation has worked so well for the British public. Many in the press – and Murdoch's media has always pushed this line – claim that 'private is best'.

You need the press when you're going to do something that they might not really think was for the best, from privatisation to going to war.

Indeed, given the competition for circulation, advertising and sales, links between the likes of News International and supermarkets are hardly surprising.

Reports that Tony Blair tried to warn off Tom Watson MP from pursuing the issue of News of the World raise questions – not least of how much that was a direct response to Murdoch's support for Iraq.

According to the article linked to at the top of this post, "government has argued strongly that it expects food prices to remain low and that cheap imports and the global trading system will best serve people's needs."

This is clearly nonsense. We need to have policies for our food security that involve seriously thinking about our own food growth, for the sake of our food security – not whether the supermarkets can exploit some developing world farmer to grown asparagus for even less than they'd pay over here (see Joanna Blythman's Shopped: the shocking power of Britain's supermarkets and The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman).

The Murdoch debacle has raised the issue in some minds of monopolies and the damage that they can do. Let's please go further and start to look at the damage that other monopolies and near monopolies exact, and stop being blinded by bread and circuses.

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