For the Leveson inquiry and free expression

How the media ethics inquiry is circumventing the chilling power of the tabloids.

The Leveson inquiry is perhaps doing more for genuine "freedom of expression" than any tabloid has ever done. For years, the partisans for the tabloids have invoked the "rights of the press" as a cloak for systemic criminal and intrusive behaviour, whilst the tabloids in turn denied rights of reply and intimidated potential critics into silence. When challenged, the tabloid punditry and their fellow-travellers shake their heads and warn darkly of "censorship" and the perils of "state control". A free press is essential to a vibrant democracy, we are invariably assured.

The problem with this standard defence is that it is not entirely true. A vibrant democracy requires the critics of the press to be heard too, and that simply has not been happening. As is becoming increasingly apparent, one general effect of the tabloid press has not been to promote free expression, but instead to shut people up or limit what they can communicate. That is not the promotion of "free expression". Those who seek to challenge the tabloids are routinely smeared and undermined. The tabloids just want the freedom to do what they want without any real criticism or effective restraint. In effect, editors and journalists of the tabloid press want to be the untouchables in their commercial operations.

The merit of the Leveson inquiry - regardless of its formal findings in its reports - is that it is giving a platform to those whose voices are deliberately smothered by the tabloid press. It has taken this statutory formal inquiry, with powers of obtaining evidence and protection from legal action to witnesses, to save "free expression" from the illiberal onslaught of the tabloids. Left to the tabloids themselves, little of what we have heard over the last week would ever have had any significant circulation.

A couple of very telling moments over the last few days came from when the tabloids thought they had been wronged. For one newspaper, an expensive QC was instructed to loudly "refute" (by which he meant "reject") various allegations, and to demand a right of reply or at least a right to challenge the evidence. Another tabloid complained that the Guardian had got its facts wrong in a strongly worded letter, and insisted on (and got) an immediate correction. One can see why the newspapers reacted in the way they did; but it really is not to their credit that for years they have casually denied such redress to those caught up in the stories. Perhaps the tabloids can now empathise with the senses of unfairness and violation which they inflict on others on a daily basis.

One should always be sceptical of those who claim grand principles to mask selfish behaviour. Such heady language is, as Samuel Johnson observed, the usual refuge of scoundrels. Instead, look carefully at what is actually being done and not done by those people and entities seeking to evade and misdirect scrutiny. The tabloids have for too long hidden behind the nod-a-long anthems of "free expression".

It is now time to allow those who criticise the tabloids free expression, too. After all, this is also essential to a vibrant democracy.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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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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