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The Price War

Broadsheet newspapers were partly to blame for the resistible rise of Jordan

To the innocent observer it probably appears as if, over the past ten years, a superbreed of ruthlessly egotistical men and women, usually unsuccessful performers with chaotic personal lives, have somehow taken over our magazines, television stations, radios and public spaces. Who are these awful people and how did they get so much power? In fact, the celebrities we see all over the papers are pawns, entirely expendable. They exist only because the media require their existence.

When I started out in journalism seven years ago, many things were possible that are not permitted in the trade today - or, at any rate, not considered profitable working practice. For example, you could print a Sunday supplement cover story that was entirely about ideas, illustrated by an abstract image or an inanimate object. The week I began my work experience at the Independent on Sunday, the review cover story was an elegant essay by Stephen Bayley about kitchen design, accompanied by a front-page photograph of colanders, whisks and other utensils, lit so that they cast dramatic shadows. Nowadays that cover image would be laughed out of the editor's office. Every story is now thought to need, at its heart, a person.

This shift in attitude has resulted in a coarsening of discourse. Occasionally, a national paper will offer a long read, about something rather than someone, but for a reliably cerebral approach you have to go to specialist publications. The mainstream has taken the path of least resistance: teeth, tits and tragedy. You can see why. It's hard to pull off a spellbinding article about a vaccine or a methodology, and only a good (and therefore expensive) writer can do it. Any old hack can put together a tale of one woman's struggle to succeed against the odds. With huge, internet-driven losses afflicting almost every newspaper, it has become impossible for editors to justify the expensive, highbrow, unpopular approach to their owners.

In theory, everyone likes quality journalism. In practice, it is asking a lot of readers to say they should sit down at the end of a hard week to a gloriously high-concept piece about the Meaning of Whisks and Colanders. How much easier for them to reach for an article emblazoned with a beaming or weeping face that they probably recognise more speedily than their friends or neighbours and whose troubles they possibly know more intimately; someone whose face seems to reflect their own - a celebrity. Our basest needs are satisfied by celebrity journalism. And, in the meantime, intellectual faculties atrophy quickly.

When the weekly celebrity rag Heat achieved a circulation of half a million in 2004, it nudged the mainstream a step closer to the brink. It now feels as if every media outlet is being sucked into a vacuum, with television, magazines and newspapers working together in a maelstrom of mutual reinforcement, so that these perpetually emotional cartoon characters become the defining figures of our age.

They are treated with a combination of sycophancy, scorn and faux compassion. Occasionally this tone lapses into downright crassness, as when, in 2007, Heat printed a sticker of the glamour model Katie Price's disabled and overweight child, Harvey, with the caption: "Harvey wants to eat me!" This misjudgement was the nadir of a callous decade. Celebrities don't have our respect, but, crucially, they do have our attention - which means they are used to sell shampoos, car insurance, and even novels. Yes: novels that bear their name but have been ghostwritten on their behalf. The latest celebrity novel, The Mistress, by the former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon, which she insists she wrote on her own, came out on 6 November, blowing us into the new decade with a resounding raspberry to literature as we used to know it. Here's to a return to ideas, authorship and anonymity in 2010.

Hermione Eyre is a former TV critic of the Independent on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.