Today’s FT coverage of the Co-op Group: why I’m sceptical

The Financial Times runs a front-page story today on the Co-operative Group which lays into the Group’s governance structures.

But I’m sceptical about the accuracy of the journalism. The story begins “At this month’s Co-operative Group board meeting to approve the 2013 accounts, its executives were braced for a grilling over the disastrous £2.5bn pre-tax loss. Instead, the members’ opening questions had a rather more banal flavour: the quality of groceries. “When will the Co-op start stocking Fairtrade bananas?” asked one member. “Why doesn’t it sell eggs laid by ‘happy chickens’,” said another.”

Why am I sceptical? Because almost exactly the same story (right down to the mention of the alleged happy chickens) emerged several months ago, in a leak designed to cast doubt on the qualities of the Group’s democratic governance arrangements. And – as anyone with even a smattering of knowledge of cooperatives would know – the Co-op Group has sold fairtrade bananas for many a long year and (like every other major supermarket) also sells free-range eggs.

So, pretty clearly, I would say that the FT is wrong. These questions were not asked at this month’s Board meeting (or at least not in those terms).

It’s possible that the FT writers could have confused the ordinary members’ meetings which take place around the country and which are open to all seven million or so of the Group’s card-carrying members (I blogged on the one for my area last year), where questions like this could conceivably have been posed. It’s rather more likely that the FT is talking of recent Boardroom discussions where Board members have presumably raised with senior executives how the Co-operative Group can more effectively harness its residual reputation as an ethical retailer to achieve competitive advantage – and where discussion about the quality and supply chain provenance of the food being sold is absolutely a legitimate matter for boardroom attention.

So we have to assume that today’s FT piece is mischievous. A pity, because the FT has previously offered some good objective reporting on the Co-op Group story.


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