Monthly Archives: March 2016

Home-made is the real convenience food


The research carried out by Zoe Harcombe on the conflicts of interest of those set up to advise on changes to the ‘eatwell plate’ (what we should eat to have a well-balanced diet) is very revealing

By analysing the other interests of the group’s members she shows how determined the supermarkets and food industry are to control over any decisions that restrict what they put in our food.

Her research also reminds us to be sceptical about all those organisations – not just in the food industry – with soft friendly sounding names which disguise the reality that they are lobbies for commercial interests.

In my blogs over the last year, I have highlighted when alarm bells should ring.

Here are a couple of examples.

First the wonderful phrase that one hears so often: “We have commissioned independent research.” If you commission something, its reports cannot be independent. Have you ever seen this sort of research producing results that embarrass the sponsor?

Secondly the people I call secret allies

These are a mix of academics, consultants, research institutes. Always double check to see if academics have a private commercial business whose interests are helped by their research: also whether consultants have commercial clients whose interests their research endorses; and check who is funding the research institutes.

Thirdly – and this brings us back to the food industry, but does apply elsewhere – distrust any organisation with a name that oozes integrity – it probably supports the exact opposite of what the name implies.

And the classic example of this is the way food products are made to sound nicer and friendlier. Take the fascinating research by Joanna Blythman into the way E numbers have been replaced by wholesome-sounding ingredients.

And, most recently, look at the Guardian’s analysis of the decision by supermarkets to launch 76 lines with fictitious farm names.

(How weird it is that supermarkets are creating mythical places for the origins of our food at the very time consumers want to know more about where their food comes from)

How are all these organisations – particularly the supermarkets and those in the food industry – able to get away with this?

The main reason is surely that while they claim to be in competition, their strategies are all variations on a similar theme. They want us to buy products rather than ingredients; and they do so by delivering a clear message that their products are healthier, cheaper, easier to prepare and tastier than anything we make ourselves.

In contrast to this coherent strategy there is what appears to me, as an outsider, as a disunity of purpose.

I don’t want for one moment to understate the skill and often personal bravery of those who expose what the food industry does. But they sometimes seem more focused on their own area of expertise, whether it is labelling, salt, sugar etc.

The power of the supermarkets and food industry can’t be beaten until every analysis of what they do challenges their core marketing strategy.

For example:

Healthier: food scientists rightly call for better labelling. But shouldn’t they also add that the best way to know what you are eating is to cook with your own ingredients.

Cheaper: I doubt if supermarkets would focus on marketing products if they could make a similar margin by selling ingredients. But, perhaps those columns comparing the merits of products sold by the different supermarkets could include the home-made equivalent.

Easier to prepare: why don’t more recipe books follow the example of Mary Berry who, in one recipe book, includes notes on what to prepare in advance and what you can freeze.

Tastier: Would supermarkets invent the names of farms etc if they felt their products could stand judgement on taste?

Of course most people eat food products from time to time – and there are some products which are hard for journeyman cooks like me – like ravioli – to replicate. And I am not offering to smoke my own fish.

But no-one should be conned into buying a ragu sauce when it can, if necessary, be prepared in advance and frozen.

Surely the way ahead is to persuade to ask this question when they go to the supermarket: if I made this myself, would it be cheaper, healthier, tastier and easier to prepare.

It is to reclaim the phrase “convenience food” from the industrial producers.

We should all endorse Joanna Blythman’s message that there is always time to cook.


Is McEnroe really helping Sharapova’s drug defence


Were John McEnroe’s comments on Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test as supportive of her as much of the media appears to believe? A close reading of what he actually said suggests that, far from being helpful, he was – intentionally or otherwise – undermining her case.

The article in today’s Times of London was characteristic of those who decided he was backing Sharapova. The headline stated: ‘McEnroe defends Sharapova and says he would have taken drug’

In the first paragraph of the story, tennis correspondent Barry Flatman writes: ‘John McEnroe is not renowned for his compassion towards other competitors but the outspoken former player has defended Maria Sharapova after she admitted to taking a banned drug and said he would have used it.’

But, a careful look at what McEnroe says provides evidence that his ‘defence’ of her actions has done much more damage to her case than the comments of most of her critics.

Her case depends on a rigid adherence to a simple narrative; that she took meldonium occasionally under medical supervision to address heart problems and because of a family history of diabetes; and that she made a “huge mistake” in failing to realise that the drug had gone on to the banned list.

McEnroe’s words cast doubt on both elements of this narrative.

By saying it was acceptable to use a prescription drug as a performance enhancer even if it was developed for other medical uses, he is, at the very least, raising the possibility that she could have used the drug for this purpose.

Look at his words as he insisted he would have used the drug if it had been available in his playing days. “If a drug is legal? That is like a no-brainer. I mean, are you kidding?…. People have been looking since the beginning of time for an edge, and you’re constantly looking for these things in any shape or form.”

He is stating that it is acceptable to do things that her lawyers and public relations people are insisting she has not done.

Nor is McEnroe helpful when he comments on her argument that she was unaware of the change in rules. “It would be hard to believe that no-one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself had no idea that this happened,” he said.

So far from supporting her narrative he has, intentionally or not, done an extremely good job in undermining it. And he has added credibility to those who don’t accept her version – as opposed to the legality – of her version of events.

Of course, it may be that, as her supporters hope, there is incontrovertible evidence that she only took these drugs for medical purposes.

But, even if that is the case, she still has to answer why she embarked on a public relations and legal strategy that only makes sense if she has something to hide.

Sharapova’s latest tricks to avoid drug charge

The battle to establish blame for Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has intensified as the latest elements of her strategy become clear.

See my earlier blogs to understand the way she launched her counter-attack.

As her legal and public relations campaign gains momentum, the aim now is to define the precise question that will be asked by the public, her fellow tennis professionals, the tennis authorities and, most importantly, her sponsors.

The questions her public relations managers want to avoid are these: why was she using a drug for a decade that many others were clearly taking to enhance their performances? This of course was the reason it was banned. Should she not have been more careful when deciding to take such a controversial drug? Is the drug so important to her health that she will have to continue taking it?

She may be one of the few people not taking the drug for performance enhancing purposes – but it still raises the question why so many athletes at the peak of their fitness seemed to be suffering from illnesses that could only be treated with this drug.

In other words, while using the drug meldonoium until the start of this year was technically legal, did her motives stink?

She may have perfectly legitimate answers but it is clear that her minders want to divert attention away from this question.

Instead they want to drag the issue back to her initial defence which was that she was responsible for making a “huge mistake” which is much easier for them to argue with the tennis authorities.

The problem with sustaining this defence is that it is hugely implausible. As many commentators have noted, Sharapova has a strong team of advisers with expertise in public relations, every other aspect of her public image and of course her physical health.

It seems almost inconceivable that she and her team could allow such an error to occur.

And the strategy used in recent days shows that her team realised how weak this position was and that it needed to be backed up by a robust additional tactics.

Some of the elements of this strategy are in place. At its heart is the attempt to discredit everyone who might try to hold her to account.

Her latest Facebook statement is another masterpiece of public relations spin. She reiterates that her comments are all part of her open and honest strategy and she says she has no excuses.

However she also spends several paragraphs providing excuses for failing to be aware the drug was banned from the start of the year. “The communications? They were buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts,” she wrote.

“In order to be aware of this ‘warning’, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read.

“I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

As others examine the communications, we will discover how legitimate her complaint is – but for now it serves as a clever attempt to explain the “big mistake.”

A second element is to make a generalised attack on her critics – a well-known diversionary tactic used by any organisation under pressure.

She condemned “distorted and exaggerated” reporting; most interestingly she denied taking meldonium every day.

I have looked at a lot of the coverage and I don’t recall anyone saying she was taking the drug every day – but just in case someone did, one can say for certain that this was hardly one of the major allegations.

In fact the only person I remember citing the allegation was her lawyer John J Haggerty. He said he wanted to “disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

It is very clever; deny an allegation that, if it was made at all, is totally absurd; create the impression that is a widely-made allegation by denying it several times. And then argue that this probably non-existent allegation is evidence of “distorted and exaggerated” reporting.

This passive aggressive defence (using an image of injured innocence and human eroor to soften a hard-nosed legal strategy) has been as effective as it possibly could be.

And I don’t know whether Sharapova used the drug in all innocence or was aware that it could give her a performance advantage if used in certain quantities.

But the way she is conducting her campaign – particularly the mix of PR spin and legal aggression – mean that I wouldn’t find her case convincing if I was in a jury hearing their evidence.

Why Maria Sharapova used such deceitful tactics

There is now more evidence of the ruthless skill with which Maria Sharapova’s press advisers staged her announcement that she had failed a drugs test.

Their aim was clear from the start; deliver a stage-managed performance of contrition and apology that would gain sympathy from the public and make it easy for her fellow professionals to support her – as many did, using words such as “courage,” “integrity” and “class.”

As an added bonus, a video of her performance could be put on her website which would help reinforce her message.

They reasoned that a sympathetic narrative would help their negotiations with the tennis authorities

So there were considerable gains to be made from staging this event.

But there was one real danger. The carefully constructed edifice might come tumbling down if well-informed journalists started asking her searching questions about mildronate/meldonium at the press conference.

The tactics to ensure this did not happen were very clever. First there were rumours that she was announcing her retirement – so media outlets would send a tennis specialist rather than an expert on drugs in sport.

Secondly the announcement had to be made as quickly as possible to ensure that no rumours dribbled out about failed drug tests and particularly her use of meldonium. Had this happened, well-briefed specialist journalists would have challenged her more effectively and aggressively than those at the event, whose questions were so banal they could remain on the video used on her website.

The importance of protecting Sharapova from cross-examination became clear within hours. By then questions were being asked about a range of issues including the number of times she had been warned; whether she was justified in using the drug for 10 years; who else had been using the drug; whether she was still using the drug for medical purposes; and why she was using a drug that had not been approved for use in the USA.

By then of course there was no Sharapova to provide answers. She might have been able to do so but it was a risk her handlers simply could not afford to take.

And I suspect the commitment to “openness and honesty” she made in her statement will not extend to another press conference with a better-prepared media.

Indeed it looks as if her strategy will now revert to a hard-nosed lawyer-driven approach where she will use every trick to minimise the consequences of her actions.

Her lawyer, John J Haggerty, has already refused to say where she acquired the meldonium, describing it as “an over-the-counter drug” which could be bought in many countries.

“I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case,” he said. “The dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate.” Haggerty said Sharapova’s medical records would be shared with the International Tennis Federation and would “make it clear that the medical treatment was necessary and recommended by her doctor”.

He insisted there was “no evidence whatsoever” she intended to cheat, which would rule out a four-year ban; and he argue there were “substantial mitigating factors” justified a ban of “significantly below” the next entry point of two years.

I have no idea how strong her case is: but I am now more certain that we should watch very carefully to see how she tries to balance a soft image and tough negotiation.

The cleverness of Maria Sharapova’s deception

You can say what you like about Maria Sharapova – but she does employ a very classy public relations team.

They ensured that she put over her pretty fragile defence against drug taking allegations as effectively as possible; and they did as much as possible to protect the Sharapova brand, which she no doubt hope will be a major money earner long after she has ceased to be a star tennis player.

Let’s take a careful look at team Sharapova’s tactics.

Make no mistake; everything she did at the press conference on March 7th was aimed at taking control of the agenda. Every image, word and gesture was carefully calculated – interesting too that a video of the press conference is on her website –

And it is worth contrasting her approach and that of others facing similar accusations.

First, Sharapova made the announcement herself in the full glare of a press conference, ensuring her chosen words were the ones that lead the reporting; on most occasions these types of story leak out, leaving the accused always on the defensive.

It was clever too because it appeared to have the openness of a press conference; but reporters did not have a chance to research the drug in question, so the few questions asked were banal in the extreme. For example, no-one asked if she was still taking the drug.

Secondly, note the amount of time and effort spent on getting her look correct. She wore a sober black top with long sleeves and black trousers.

What a contrast with her usual image. I cannot remember any similar outfit worn by her before. On formal occasions, she sometimes wears black but usually with a relatively short skirt, and most of the images of her include short skirts, crop tops and bare arms.

These photos of Sharapova went round the world, defining a new sober image that was reflected in her words.

Then we come to her statement which was a masterpiece of its own kind – brilliantly structured and worded to bring together a series of often conflicting messages.

This was a clear attempt to present herself as open, honest and contrite and ready to take responsibility. This is again new ground – many athletes in a similar position try to give the impression that anything that happened was not their fault.

Don’t though be distracted by the language she uses. Sharapova is also trying to say it is not her fault, but is doing so in a much cleverer way.

Look at her statement.

She starts by saying she has failed a drug test and takes “full responsibility.” To which one is meant to respond: ‘How refreshing that someone is taking responsibility rather than denying everything or passing the buck.’

However her initial remarks are followed by a series of mitigating circumstances designed to make us feel how noble she is to take responsibility when she is not responsible at all. She does this by mentioning rule changes (that the drug has only just been put on the banned list) and that she used the drug for serious health issues.

She then says how important it is to be open and honest, as she always has been in the past about many things. Yet, this begs the point that this statement was carefully structured and everything she has done in the past has helped to protect and promote her brand.

She then talks about responsibility and professionalism and admits that she made a “huge mistake.”

There are all kinds of different images floating round here. There is the need to take responsibility, which shows her in a good light but also this mention of a “huge mistake.” She is subtly denying that she is a drug cheat and also getting our sympathy by talking of a mistake – after all which one has not made a huge mistake in our lives.

Then she says she has let her fans down. But the subtext is that she has let them down by making a huge mistake, which is not really an admission of anything. This is a classic case of the non-apology apology.

And she concludes by saying she knows she faces consequences, adding a plea for another chance.

So, what do we have here? We have the image of a woman taking responsibility for what happened, apologising to her sport and her fans and accepting that there is a price to pay – and there is no doubt that these provided the best media sound-bites.

But there is a clear subtext; that she is human and made mistake due to a whole series of mitigating circumstances and therefore should receive another chance. In other words, she has done nothing really culpable.

In summary it is a very clever mix of the rhetoric of contrite guilt and the hard-nosed substance of innocence.

It is not for me to comment on her case – plenty of reporters will be asking more substantive question than they did at the press conference and sponsors will be deciding whether to follow the example of Nike and suspend her contract.

But don’t be fooled by the images and words Sharapova had used. They are but the first blows in a long campaign to preserve the commercial viability of brand Sharapova.