The retailer has told publishers to tone down their magazine covers. Alexandra Jardine asks whether it has a point.
Cries of 'Censorship!' went up from some quarters last week when it emerged that Tesco is asking publishers of certain lads' magazines to submit front covers for vetting prior to going on-shelf.
According to the national press, publishing industry sources say Tesco has demanded changes to some covers at the last minute, concerned by the flesh count.
As Tesco is the UK's second-biggest seller of magazines, it is not surprising that these sources were quoted anonymously - openly criticising such an important retailer would be risky. But some argue that Tesco is abusing its market position by asking publishers to submit to its own standards.
Tesco believes it has a fair point - it has to uphold its brand values as a family store and does not want to offend customers, particularly those with children.
A Tesco spokesman would not comment on specific incidents or numbers of complaints, but confirms that the chain has issued guidelines on covers and that certain magazines have been invited to send their covers for appraisal. He claims that in cases where a cover was not suitable, publishers would be given plenty of time to rethink.
'It's about working with the publishers,' he says. 'We don't want to be like Wal-Mart in the US and simply refuse to stock the magazines, but we want to make clear our position, for example, on nudity on the front cover.'
Tesco insists that magazines with covers featuring exposed genitalia and nipples must be sold in bags to obscure the offending images. The proliferation of lads' mags such as IPC's Nuts and Emap's Zoo, which regularly have semi-clad female cover stars, has prompted a tougher look at all titles. 'Some of these magazine covers feature nudity or bad language. Many customers find that inappropriate,' says the spokesman.
But he takes issue with accusations of censorship. 'We're simply stating what our customers expect - it is up to the publishers as to what they do. So far it has worked very well.'
Tesco is the first UK retailer to issue guidelines on decency to publishers, and the industry is concerned that it is the 'thin end of the wedge'.
Ian Locks, chief executive of the Periodical Publishers Association, says the guidelines look 'perfectly reasonable', but warns that the issue is their interpretation.
'We are looking at a major retailer whose power is growing incrementally,' he says. 'Tesco has signalled in the past that it wants to build its own supply chain for magazines and newspapers, which would inevitably lead to a retailer-dominated monopoly of the route to market. There is a long slippery slope. It could target The Sun next.'
So what should publishers do? 'If publishers just accept that there is a new censor, that would be a dangerous precedent,' says Locks. …