Any doubt that the BBC has a bias against supermarkets was surely dispelled by a Panorama offering shortly before Christmas ('What Price Cheap Food?'). The outcome, however, fell well short of its pretensions.
The first allegation was that increasing scale economies at the retail end of the market are driving the growth of factory farming an emotive synonym for animal suffering and environmental damage. The main examples cited, however, were in the US, and even here the reality didn't quite match the intended script. Invited to excoriate a mega-dairy near Chicago, a farmer who had just lost his farm in the UK looked at the cows and said they were obviously very happy.
Nor did the large-scale US pigmeat model find much resonance in the smaller, welfare-conscious and environmentally safe Derbyshire pig farm, presented as the shape of things to come in the UK.
Another claim was that cheap food is tasteless, mediocre rubbish. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a zealot for organic, local, small-scale farming, was given a very easy run. A blind tasting test was rigged up in which FW spat out a supermarket tomato, then pronounced some premium pork superior to a mid-range, much cheaper supermarket offering. Surprising, eh?
More seriously, the programme implied that all supermarket chicken was battery-produced, with no mention of the free-range and organic lines on sale in most chains. FW also claimed, contrary to retailers' experience, that shoppers would buy "ugly" fruit if only supermarkets would sell it.
And suppliers are supposedly carrying the can for supermarket price-cutting. In the virtual absence of suppliers willing to give evidence either way, the researchers could have quoted from the latest Competition Commission report, except they would have found little to cheer them up. So a claim of "big profits" being made was unsupported by any input on costs, margins and added value at any point in the chain. Had any of the big four deigned to enter the fray, this could have been corrected.
Finally, having played up the local opposition to more supermarkets, we had a blast of honesty from a lady shopper who called the protesters hypocrites. The presenter concluded that it's we ourselves who are driving supermarket growth. A revelation indeed.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.