A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

When corporations behave badly we have the power to bring them down by removing their life blood, but we rarely exercise it

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The Independent Online

Can I proffer some advice? If you have to make an important apology, never read a script off autocue. Incredibly, that’s how Peter Fankhauser, the ham-fisted chief executive of Thomas Cook, chose to address the parents of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, whose children were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday.

If he had any conscience Mr Fankhauser should resign. Nine long years after a faulty boiler in a hotel in Corfu devastated this family on holiday, he decided that a shareholders’ meeting was an appropriate occasion to offer his condolences before meeting the family. In the meantime, the parents have had to remortgage their homes and pay for their own flights and accommodation to follow the legal proceedings in Greece. Flat broke, they were forced to lobby David Cameron for legal aid to represent them at the inquest in the UK.

On Thursday, Fankhauser finally held a private meeting with Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood. He says he is “deeply sorry” – but is the timing of his contrition part of a damage limitation exercise after the UK inquest concluded the company had breached its duty of care?

Now it emerges that the hotel manager found guilty by the Greek courts is still working in hotels used by Thomas Cook. A campaign has been launched to boycott the travel company, fuelled by the news it had accepted £3m in compensation from the hotel owner, while the parents received only £350,000 each. Although Thomas Cook eventually donated its compensation to charity, why did it ever accept the cash in the first place? Given it is supposed to be in the business of making people happy and relaxed, why were its people skills so piss poor that until this week it had never communicated directly with these distraught customers?

When booking a holiday, one might expect that the company that gets our cash will accept responsibility for ensuring the experience will be enjoyable and life enhancing, not life threatening. That any hotels it uses would be regularly checked and employees capable of carrying out safety checks. Since these children died, Thomas Cook has been reluctant to accept any responsibility, more concerned with pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. Its behaviour is shocking, but sadly, the threat of a “customer boycott” carries all the impact of a wet flannel.

In 2015, we get steamed up about tax evasion, environmental pollution and customer care, but we can’t be arsed to put our money where our mouths are and move our custom elsewhere. Ethical consumerism is a pipe dream. When corporations behave badly, we have the power to bring them down by removing their life blood – our cash – but rarely exercise it. From Google to Starbucks and Amazon, all have convoluted tax arrangements which ensure they pay much less per pound of income than either you or I do. Yet we’re still drinking their coffee, ordering books and DVDs online and searching the internet using all the most convenient sources. When we read that Jimmy Carr and George Michael had signed up to aggressive tax avoidance schemes, did we stop going to their shows or buying their music? Of course not. It’s just emerged that clothing retailer Next used convoluted laws to try to dodge £22m of UK tax – but will we stop buying its cute swimsuits?

Thomas Cook says its holiday bookings remain “encouraging”, with sales 2 per cent up on last year. That tells you all you need to know about consumer power.


It’s a very bitter pill to swallow for many GPs

I wrote last week about the worrying rise in prescriptions dished out by doctors to placate patients. I asked whether a hug, a cup of tea or a good walk might be just as efficacious. Obviously, I didn’t mean that recognised medical conditions should be treated like this, but there’s no denying we take too many pills, most of which serve no purpose.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has launched a campaign to persuade doctors to prescribe less, and a now a new survey reveals that four out of five GPs admit they are dishing out unnecessary treatments to placate and reassure patients. Some doctors admitted it was because “they couldn’t be bothered to argue any more”.


The simplest images can sometimes be the best

Photo London at Somerset House is full of self-important collectors inspecting a host of flashy images – Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, David Bowie and Alexander McQueen, whose portrait by Anton Corbijn is priced at a cool £29,800.

Why do people collect photographs? A lot of the pictures here will be bought as set dressing – chosen to add glamour to an expensive home. But the show is well worth visiting for more restrained pleasures: the work of William Eggleston, Bruce Davidson and some exquisite little images by Charles Jones in 1900 of humble beetroot.

I’ve always had a soft spot for photo journalism, and am the proud owner of a beautiful Bert Hardy print of his son playing football with a panda, taken at London zoo back in the 1950s. On the weekend when Ireland is deciding whether to legalise gay marriage, I enjoyed Graham Smith’s images of two working-class men having a snog in the snug bar of a pub in Middlesbrough, in 1982. I wonder if they still vote Labour.



Chelsea is between a rock and a hard place

I don’t really understand the new trend in gardening. At Chelsea Flower Show, all the posh plots had patches of bare earth, gravel and piles of stones, interspersed with weeds – or designer wild flowers as they are known by posh people.

The gold medal for best in show was won by Dan Pearson, whose display was inspired by Chatsworth House and featured huge boulders brought from the estate at vast expense. I even found one garden which incorporated a paved parking space for a car.

Isn’t this all a bit pretentious? Most people’s back gardens are full of unkempt gravel, weeds and stones that belong elsewhere. The stylish version of the au naturel look can be achieved only if you are an expensive horticulturist.

My favourite stand in the main marquee was a fabulous display of potatoes, proudly arranged like the gorgeous gems they are. A whole range of blue and purple spuds are already on sale at swanky supermarkets and are this year’s new trendy carbohydrate.

Beware, though, some varieties turn to grey mush when boiled.


Can’t taste anything? Try turning down the volume

Scientists in New York have discovered that our perception of taste changes in really noisy situations. Sound levels over 85 decibels – on board a plane, for example – distort our ability to enjoy sweet food and emphasise our enjoyment of savoury things such as cheese and tomato juice.

Last week I spent an evening in a new London restaurant, Portland, which had received excellent reviews. The noise levels were deafening, even though I huddled next to the coat rack, hoping that the fabric would deaden some of the sound. My food was tasty, but the whole experience was a bit like sitting in the back of a Ryanair flight, but with much better catering.

I know carpet tiles are out of fashion, but they did serve a purpose, which is soaking up irritating sounds. Please don’t tell me I can’t stand noise because I’m old.