The Amanda Knox case is another blow to the press

In the rush to be first, sometimes something - anything - will do.

News that Amanda Knox had been found guilty sent publishers into a spin. Nowadays we all want to be FIRST!!!!!, the irritating commenter who leaves their response first under a story, and first is everything, whether it's completely right or not. It was only a few minutes later, when those who had been patient enough to listen to the Italian translation of the whole verdict, realised that Knox was only guilty of libel, and not of the murder of Meredith Kercher.

It's embarrassing for the Mail Online, and others, who in their rush to publish, got it so badly wrong. It's understandable that a paper would have two versions of a story ready to go; and that legal teams and all other parties would provide quotes to the media based on both eventualities ahead of any decision. What isn't understandable is the making up of details: "She sank into her chair sobbing uncontrollably", according to the Mail, but that never happened, because she wasn't found guilty.

In the rush to be first, sometimes something - anything - will do, and quality can suffer as a result. This sort of thing has always happened in newspapers since the presses began to roll - remember the photo of a grinning Harry Truman holding up a front page saying he had been defeated in the presidential election - and many are the times when papers will have a couple of versions of a story ready to go when they know what the outcome is.

Sometimes, mistakes are made, and that's the product of simple errors and incompetence rather than malice. All that said, the guessing of details about what might have happened really isn't good enough. If you don't know, don't say anything; don't guess at what might have happened and then get it tidied up once you've had half a million unique users piling in to the story. That sort of thing isn't going to restore trust in journalism after the recent scandals, regardless of whether it's an honest mistake rather than a malicious one. The overly rapid handling of the Knox case is another dent in the credibility of our press and their ability to be trusted.

I mention Knox rather than Raffaele Sollecito because the popular narrative with this story has never been about him. This has been, for better or worse, the tale of a not unattractive white American woman embroiled in a murder which may have had sexual elements to it; who even remembers what Sollecito looks like? Or that Rudy Guede is in prison, serving time for the crime? It has always been the story of Knox, or 'Foxy Knoxy' as the tabloids have lasciviously called her, based on a moniker she once gave herself online.

No wonder Kercher's family feel she has been forgotten in all the attention directed at Knox, and to a much lesser extent, Sollecito and Guede. Knox's face stares out from all the newspapers, on one occasion photographed so that her face was framed with a light above it as a halo, while the victim fades away into the background.

Who remembers Kercher's agony and her family's pain of loss? But that is the way of these things. The very least the tabloids so joyously feasting on the gory details could do would be to be as accurate as possible, if they aren't going to be respectful. But they can't even do that.

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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