Although I commute by train, I am also a car driver and have some sympathy for those whose cars failed recently thanks to contamination of petrol supplies. In this morning’s paper Tesco have taken out a full-page ad to apologise (although as they were the retailer, it would be more fitting if the oil refinery / wholesalers had done so).My eye was drawn to a curious wording in the body of the ad (there is plenty of time for this sort of thing on my morning journey into Central London). “We’d like to promise to pay for the repairs”. At first glance a great admission of corporate culpability and a refreshing willingness to make amends. Now let us deconstruct the meaning of those few words, those oh-so carefully chosen words. Remember always that a raft of PR people and a flotilla of corporate lawyers have sifted and vetted every nuance and shade of interpretation of this simple statement. They could have said “We will pay for the repairs”. But they did not. They could have said “We promise to pay for the repairs”. Not in any way so strong or even legally binding, but something pretty difficult to wriggle out of. Obviously too strong for m’learned friends to sanction. Perhaps they envisaged a flood (that’s the third marine reference I’ve snuck in so far, hope you are keeping count at home) of claims that would envelop their clients in a tidal wave (that’s four) of litigation, with weepy-eyed drivers breaking down in court and howling “but you promised…”.
So what we got was the weasel words “We’d like to promise…”. Yes. I’m sure they would like to. Hell, even I would like to be able to make such a promise. But this is a mere statement of a state of mind. It is not binding in any sense. It is not a promise. Should Tesco turn down any claims, they are not even reneging on a promise because they have not actually made a promise. I can easily picture their lawyers, feet up on a gleaming desk, fees clocking up at £500 an hour, explaining this to some hapless motorist who thought he was onto a good thing. I’m not really attacking Tesco. I suspect that they do really mean to keep their apparent promise. It just bothers me that they felt unable to say so.By the way, just to show how carefully one should read this sort of thing, the BBC web site failed to get it right. According to them the wording is “we’d like to pay for the repairs”.