Isabel Oakeshott: Vicky Pryce double-crossed me

The Sunday Times journalist reveals her side of the discussions which led to the conviction of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife for perverting the course of justice.

Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times journalist who convinced Vicky Pryce to go on the record about taking Chris Huhne's speeding points, has today published her side of the story. 

Oakeshott advised Pryce to record her ex-husband discussing the points, and their lengthy email correspondence was revealed in the trial which saw Pryce convicted of perverting the course of justice. 

The email trail (which can be read in full here) is a must-read for press commentators and journalism students. It provides a rare real-life example of a senior journalist negotiating with a reluctant source to agree to publication.

Oakeshott's piece in the News Review (£) adds some fascinating detail. She was clearly well aware of Pryce's motivation in speaking to her:

It was now clear to me that Vicky had an agenda: she was out to get Chris Huhne. She didn’t need to spell it out: her willingness to show me confidential documents that mighthave revealed something compromising showed she wanted to do him damage. The more he compounded her misery by trying to pare down her divorce settlement, the more dangerous to him she was becoming.

In the emails, Pryce writes: "I just want the story out there so he has to resign." Both she and Oakeshott refer regularly to the story bringing Huhne down, or proving "fatal".

Initially, Oakeshott had convinced Pryce not to go to the Mail on Sunday, which had been chasing the story. In the emails, she refers to it as a "fairly downmarket" newspaper, and says it would seem "tawdry" to go there. She argues it would look mercenary for Pryce to accept money for the story: a reason to go with the Sunday Times, which would not pay her.

After the first story Oakeshott had negotiated with Pryce appeared in the Sunday Times - a piece which referred only to "someone" taking Huhne's points - Pryce suddenly drops out of contact with the journalist. 

That weekend I found out why: she had double-crossed me. While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.

In Oakeshott's view, dallying with both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers was part of what led to Pryce's downfall. She had tried to get Pryce to agree to a follow-up in the Sunday Times, telling her: "I need your help. Please don't tell me what I can't write. Tell me what I CAN write."

The other controversial aspect of the case tackled by Oakeshott in her piece is News International's decision to hand over the "confidential" agreement Pryce had signed to the court, along with copies of their emails.

Handing over lengthy private email correspondence between myself and Vicky was an entirely different matter, however. I was horrified when it was requested by the police. While I do not believe those messages contained anything unprofessional, I would have chosen every word carefully if I’d known it would be for public consumption. The Sunday Times put up a vigorous fight in court. But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.

That decision will keep journalism ethics classes in material for years. Should Oakeshott and the Sunday Times have refused to reveal their source? Or was the public interest greater in them revealing it, and both Huhne and Pryce being convicted of their crime?

Vicky Pryce. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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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