We have to protect the broadcasters from themselves

Don’t say it, don’t even think it.

After five sets of high-octane tennis spread over three hours on Centre Court, the last thing Andy Murray needed as he floated off the grass into Wednesday evening, was an audience with the BBC’s ever-present roving reporter Gary Richardson.

“Alex Ferguson was in the Royal Box today watching” Richardson breathed nervously. “He has been known to go into the dressing room after matches and give his players a bit of hairdryer treatment...”

Murray looked at Richardson a little mournfully. No doubt the US Open champion would have taken an hour of agony in one of his famed ice baths rather than face this mandatory two minutes with the BBC’s favourite courtside interviewer.  He knew what was coming.

“I don’t know it all” the Scotsman replied to Richardson’s suggestion that he might receive a spot of criticism from his coach Ivan Lendl. “But I don’t see why I should get told off for that, I fought as hard as I could.”

Richardson knew he was playing a stinker. This was his own Wimbledon quarter-final and he was blundering through it with a mix of stuttering double-faults and painfully off-target questions.

The impression from Richardson, indeed the impression from the whole of the BBC team across all platforms, was that there was just no way that Murray could lose over five sets to Fernando Verdasco. To suggest otherwise was illogical. After all, it’s his year, right?

I have a real thing about jinxing anything. In sport, in particular, the British broadcast media have a real penchant for it.

And, a generation of English footballers aside, few sportsmen can understand the nonsensical over-confidence better than Andy Murray.

Every year the tension, hype and confidence grows, every year the disappointment is grander.

Andrew Castle channelled the spirit of 1980s Cliff Richard music videos and gave it his own First4lawyers twist as he took to the BBC’s daily ‘Pundits Pick’ on Tuesday night to roundly put the mockers on Murray.  

It is difficult to understand how educated media professionals, scarred by decades of bad experience, can get so smug about British tennis’ few rays of optimism. But year after year, they get smugly ahead of themselves before, inevitably, being forced to eat humble pie three hours down the line.

Bet365 were offering a generous 7/1 on the Verdasco before the first ball was struck and, had I not lost my pin, I would have happily wasted £10 on jinxing the annoyingly handsome 29-year-old- returning Castle’s curse with a ham-handed lob.

But in the same way Murray seemed unable to offer but scant resistance to the Spaniard’s power in the opening two sets, the deluge of comments kept coming.

“The match turning” the BBC’s live text assured us as Murray broke at the start of the second set.

“Some things never change. But this match seems to be” said the Guardian’s own game by game commentary at the same point.

There was nowhere else to turn. I could not bring myself to listen to the Radio 5’s live commentary in case, as was the situation on Monday, they broke off from a crucial point of the match to talk about Pat Cash’s potential appearance on the senior tour later this year.

I haven’t been so annoyed since I had to explain to a then paramour that the Argentinean coverage of Chelsea’s 2010 Champions League exit at the hands of Inter Milan did not mean that Didier Drogba would be playing in goal.

So, Twitter’s warm embrace it was. Even in the midst of a British tennis storm, the limited shelter from the hype was preferable.

There is something strangely relaxing about watching a match through the eyes Twitter. There are no gut-wrenching nerves every time a sliced backhand comes within a foot of the net, nor panic as a mistimed lob lands just on the baseline.

Points and games are just numbers to be won and lost. Non-tennis fans rehash clichéd thoughts about Andy Murray’s nationality. The Times’ Neil Harman writes “Jeu decisif” every five minutes. Actual score updates are few and far between.

By the time I was on the train home, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. The former Chelsea footballer Jody Morris had taken to cockney rhyming slang (“This Verdasco puts soooo much Dusty Bin on his forehand!!!”) and Murray’s former coach Brad Gilbert- still highly respected after his work with Andre Agassi in the 90s- had taken his penchant giving players incomprehensible nicknames to new levels; (“Are you kidding me Muzzard in big trouble vs a very hot Tabasco”).

When Murray finally broke for 6-5 in the decider, the sense of relief was awesome. Unfortunately, the crowing sense of confidence was not far behind.

Destiny, fate, logic. The sporting media will not take yesterday’s near-miss as a warning. The reality is that should Murray find a way into Sunday’s final, the prospect of beating Novak Djokovic over five sets to end of one of British sport’s biggest hoodoos would be like winning a Grand Slam in itself.

The chances are that you might just have to remind them of that fact. I’m off to lay a grand on Jerzy Janowicz to win the whole thing.

Andy Murray beats Fernando Verdasco on Day 9 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 3, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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