For Murdoch and friends, sorry is the easiest word

For Rupert, Rebekah and David, contrition has finally arrived. But where's the shame?

Rupert Murdoch is very sorry. He's very sorry that he didn't know anything about what went on at his newspapers, which was wrong but not the fault of the people in charge of those newspapers, and he's very sorry that those people who were in charge, but didn't know anything about the wrong things that were happening, have now had to resign.

Rebekah Brooks is sorry. She's sorry that although she was in charge of newspapers for which despicable acts took place, she knew nothing about it, having been on holiday when many of these incidents took place, and not having known about it otherwise. She's sorry that she said that her organisation had paid police, when what she meant to say was that her organisation had not paid police. These things happen, when you're in a high pressure situation. You can end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

David Cameron is sorry. He's sorry that he gave someone a second chance. He's sorry that the second chance, which he gave someone, by giving them a second chance, didn't work out as well as he might have hoped. No-one warned him that by giving this someone a second chance, it might not be the best outcome in the history of the world, although some people say they did warn him, and that he must have either not even read those warnings, or not listened to them, or proceeded anyway.

Everyone's sorry. Everyone is sorry that what happened happened, and that even though they were in the kind of positions where you might expect them to know about what happened, they didn't know about what happened. No-one knew anything, and were quite right to dismiss all the investigative work on the phone hacking story as boring lefty troublemakers doing some yawnworthy tedium, until the tale about the hacking of a dead teenager's phone came out - at which point it actually mattered.

It mattered because the story went beyond the BBC, or the Guardian, or the usual suspects - it went everywhere, and wasn't going to go away. It wasn't just being read about by the kind of people who'd never buy your papers; it was being read about by exactly the kind of people who do buy your papers, and are disgusted with you for having run the kind of paper where this kind of thing happened. Then it mattered a lot.

Then, everyone who is now sorry was as shocked as everyone else. Imagine the shock. The surprise. Imagine not having known about anything, all that time. Imagine employing someone - giving them a second chance, if you want to use that phrase - who was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy dealing, and not having sat them down and forced them to tell you exactly what they knew and didn't know. Imagine that.

Would you feel sorry, or would there be another feeling running through you? Not sorry, but something else... shame. Shame that you should have known, but didn't know. Shame that you didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Shame that you didn't know where any of this information came from, and just paid people for it anyway. Shame that you were in charge, yet weren't in charge. Shame that you took the absolutely enormous salary, yet didn't know what you were doing, apparently.

Everyone's sorry, and everyone involved in this grubby mess hopes that a simple sorry will make everything all right again. Just a simple sorry, and hope that the fuss dies down, and then up pops the Sun on Sunday on August 7, or thereabouts, and it's the football season and there'll be a massive preview and free gifts and other lovely things for you to look at, and everyone will just shrug their shoulders and think, oh well, I suppose we'd better give them a second chance, hadn't we? It's important to give people second chances. And that will be that. Crisis averted. Ed Miliband foiled. Everything carries on, much as it did before.

Unless people aren't prepared to tolerate being fooled again. And unless people aren't prepared to think that a simple sorry will get Murdoch and friends out of this sorry mess.

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 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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