The two faces of journalism

A deeply unsatisfying and unquestioning exhibition at Somerset House.

Source: Getty Images

Call me an idealist, but I have long harboured the belief that the role of journalism is to ask probing questions and to uncover the truth no matter the cost. To expose hypocrisy and deceit wherever it is found. What happens, then, when this hypocrisy and deceit bleeds through from the subject into the profession itself?

2011 saw mass protests, change and social upheaval across the world on an unprecedented scale. From the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the August riots on Britain's high streets, journalists and journalism have been at the heart of this change. Recording, documenting and analysing.

Or have they?

Deep in the bowels of Somerset House, a new exhibition professes to offer the public an insider's peek into the world of frontline journalism. Using an abundance of stills and flickering, ghostly footage taken from Sky News broadcasts, the exhibition charts the coverage of breaking news events in the UK and Middle East. This overload of graphic images and self-congratulatory interviews creates a neat, self-packaged and digestible version of frontline journalism that encourages none of the probing, questioning and analysing for which such journalism is renowned.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an exhibition sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News presents such a self-consciously rosy picture of news coverage around the world (after all, Sky was arguably the only true winner in the Libyan conflict). But what strikes me most is the hypocrisy and double-standards evident in both the way the exhibition is presented, and the unquestioning approach it takes to the role of journalists on the frontline of breaking news stories.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: one side of the room documents the so-called "Arab Spring", where the perpetrators are referred to as "revolutionaries" and "rebels"; while the other side is dedicated to the London riots, whose participants are branded as "hooligans", "criminals" and "vandals".

Now, I do not question that what happened here in Britain is fundamentally different from the mostly democratic uprisings that have been taking place across the Arab world, but the lack of any comparative analysis or questioning of such superficially similar events is frankly worrying. The tacit assumption that what is happening Libya, Egypt and Syria is necessarily a Good Thing -- with no mention of the instability and chaos that has gripped these countries in the past year; or indeed the complicity of western powers in propping up those very dictators of whom we are now lauding the demise -- is telling of the preconceptions we westerners often have when commenting on events in the Middle East. Perversely, there is simultaneously no mention of the social and political conditions that may (or may not) have played a part in fuelling the resentment of Britain's rioters.

I'm not saying that the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali are not to be celebrated, or indeed that I condone in any way the actions of those who smashed their way through our high streets over the summer. What concerns me is that an exhibition whose self-professed aim is to offer "a unique insight into the editorial, political and human aspects of news reporting" fails to ask some of the most basic questions that all journalists reporting on breaking news stories should be asking: What is a protest, how does it start, why does it continue and who is involved?

Because it is only by asking questions that we can uncover the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a journalist and writer specialising in the Middle East and currently living and working in London.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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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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