Media vultures are homing in on private lives – but at what cost?

Coverage of the most recent developments in the Joanna Yeates case prompts the question: will the me

A new feeding frenzy in the Joanna Yeates murder case has brought more unsettling speculation – and more attention to an otherwise ordinary street in Bristol.

I tend to watch Sky News with the volume muted – it's often the best way to enjoy it. Devoid of commentary, yesterday's pictures from the HD Skycopter, lazily circling the block of flats where Jo Yeates lived, took on an eerie, almost stalker-like quality. The helicopter whirled around and around, almost in the expectation that something was going to happen – but nothing did.

It was just the same few shots, again and again. Some houses, one covered in scaffolding, but not a human form in sight. All so banal, so lacking in any activity, it could have been any street, anywhere. A recently erected tarpaulin – to allow investigators to get on with their job in peace, or possibly to avoid the kind of scrutiny that saw ITN banned from a press conference a couple of weeks back – was the only clue that anything might be in any way unusual.

The Skyvulture didn't wheel around to show us the part of the picture which would have been extraordinary rather than mundane: the persistent cluster of reporters we knew to be standing in Canynge Road, describing what they thought (but couldn't really see) was going on behind them. Yet I suppose it is the ordinariness of the setting for this murder mystery that has captured the interest of the public from day one – along with the photogenic, middle-class victim, the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, and, sadly, the way in which one suspect's life was turned upside down.

Chris Jefferies – who was labelled as "weird", "lewd", "strange", "creepy", "angry", "odd", "disturbing", "eccentric", "a loner" and "unusual" over the course of just one article – faced trial in the papers, on charges of being somewhat unorthodox and having blue hair, of having read poetry, of having been a teacher. But he was released without charge.

The mystery trundled on, and camera crews still popped up in Canynge Road to detail each fresch development, each little twist and turn, each cough and spit of the investigation. And now, after a new arrest, they are back, filming the flat where no one lives, a place where someone used to live, and a possible crime scene. Pictures of nothing, images of no one, footage of a static building. There's something verging on the surreal about it, but we all know why they are there. If the Skycopter had X-ray eyes, we'd be looking through the walls.

Any faint hopes that the papers may have learned their lesson about "innocent-until-proven-guilty" (or even the slightly more obvious "innocent-especially-when-not-yet-charged-with-anything") have disappeared this morning. Police advice to be mindful of the Contempt of Court Act doesn't seem to have worked. It's more of the same, just with a different face for us to inspect, a different person – a foreigner! – held up for us to make knee-jerk judgements about and decide whether he's guilty or not, in the absence of evidence.

The tabloids will not heed the police advice to be cautious; they will publish what they like, when they like. Are they bravely acting in the public interest or shamelessly acting as a pack, regardless of whether it might prejudice a trial or wreck an innocent person's life in the meantime? Whatever the ethics, interest in the case is still strong and many papers have been sold on the back of it. The cameras are still there, in Canynge Road, waiting outside that familiar building, waiting for it to reveal its secrets.

The time when a family can get justice, or move on and grieve in private (and when those who may have been wrongly accused might get justice, too) still seems a long way away. But when this does die down and the Skycopter moves on to a new place, Canynge Road will return to being just another street somewhere. And we will all forget it: the pictures that seemed so important, the place that has dominated our news, the broken lives left behind.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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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