Supermarket bullies accused me of stealing

'I paid for my goods and, with my papers under my arm, made my way out of the local Somerfield supermarket where I was arrested'
Click to follow

It was a sunny Sunday morning in the Norfolk market town of Diss. As usual, I picked up my newspapers from the Paper Chain newsagent and, on my way back to the car, bought some shopping at the Somerfield supermarket. I paid for my goods and, with my papers under my arm, made my way out of the store, where I was arrested.

It was a sunny Sunday morning in the Norfolk market town of Diss. As usual, I picked up my newspapers from the Paper Chain newsagent and, on my way back to the car, bought some shopping at the Somerfield supermarket. I paid for my goods and, with my papers under my arm, made my way out of the store, where I was arrested.

Perhaps "detained" is a more accurate term. Two men in the shirt-sleeved uniform of supermarket employees stood in front of me, in rather closer proximity than I normally find comfortable. The taller of the two, crop-haired and threatening, told me that they had reason to believe I was in possession of goods for which I had not paid. What goods were those? The newspapers under my arm.

I laughed with relief and mild incredulity. I had bought the papers in a shop 50 yards away, where I was a regular customer. The problem was easily solved.

Except it was not. The Somerfield enforcers ignored that excuse. They took me to an office, where I was offered video evidence. On an office television screen, a CCTV film was run, showing a middle-aged man roaming the aisles. Was it or was it not me?

It was not. The man was clearly wearing different clothes and was holding a blue carrier bag.

At that point, what had hitherto been a joke in poor taste became distinctly unpleasant. Putting the video aside, my main interrogator asked me if I could prove that I had bought the papers elsewhere. Wearily, I asked him once more to ring Paper Chain. Instead, he rang the police. "Male, white, 52. Theft." He looked at me sceptically. "Alleged theft."

Getting fingered for offences that one has not committed seems to have become a part of modern life - not so long ago, my colleague Philip Hensher wrote about being taken for a book-thief in central London - but there was something oddly alarming about being cross-questioned in a country supermarket.

These organisations now have a vast amount of power. Their presence in Diss has driven most of the local food-shops out of business. Squatting hideously in the centre of the town, Somerfield is a truly woeful and ill-stocked store, but the only alternative is Safeway.

So perhaps I should not have been surprised that, when the local police officer turned up, she was also openly sceptical of my story. The manager, Mr Bradford, as Old Crop-Hair was revealed to be, had done precisely the right thing, she told me. I was informed of my rights and told that I needed to prove where I bought the papers. "I am not arresting you at this point," she said, unreassuringly.

I told her about Paper Chain. She walked the 50 yards. My story was duly confirmed.

Yet when she returned, the distrust and scepticism were still there. In future, she said, I should take care not to walk into Somerfield with papers bought elsewhere. The manager offered me his hand. When I declined to shake it, he turned to discuss something else with the policewoman.

Does any of this matter? Until Sunday morning, I might have thought that such moments of inconvenience were the price we paid for living in a society where shoplifting is rife and security cameras watch every move. But this was nasty; it was legalised bullying. For reasons of malice or, more probably, dumb stupidity, the Somerfield enforcers had refused to check out my story and responded to my answers with leering disbelief.

If I had not been known to the local newsagent, I would presumably have been arrested and charged. I returned home, sweating with rage, having lost a morning's work. I am still angry, 24 hours later.

And all because I walked into a supermarket with a couple of newspapers under my arm.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments