Confessions of a Political Animal

July 3, 2009

New Standard – same old news values

Printed in Southwark: not all that interested in reporting on it

Printed in Southwark: not all that interested in reporting on it

I am Political Animal, and I am a secret purchaser of the Evening Standard.

Well, just once in fact, so perhaps I don’t need to head for Standardholics Anonymous just yet. But yesterday, the sun was shining, there was 50p burning a hole in my pocket and my train home was 5 minutes late. So I gave in to temptation. But, honestly folks, I had a motive. I wanted to check a hunch I had. Bear with me.

I’ve written before about the running fiasco that is the Elephant & Castle regeneration project. This is probably the biggest such project in Europe and affects the homes and businesses of thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of inner London. It includes thousands of new homes, businesses and transport facilities. Well, on Wednesday the newswires(alright, Google News Alerts, but that makes me sound so much less important) alerted me to the latest depressing development – or rather, non-development – in the saga. With the project already around seven years behind the original timescale, the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition at Southwark Council have failed to meet their self-imposed deadline of 1st July to reach a deal to progress the project. This follows two years of exclusive negotiations with struggling Australian property giant Lend Lease (also responsible for the Olympic Village) – the exclusivity deal expired on Wednesday. Where this leaves the project is anyone’s guess – in these difficult financial times it is entirely possible that Lend Lease will refuse the meet Southwark’s demands on affordable homes, small business premises and green space protection and simply walk away, leading to years more of delays. The thousand households in the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate are effectively in limbo: no-one knows when their replacement homes will be built and the council is years behind targets in building the temporary ‘decant’ homes.

This very brief account barely scratches the surface – and there is blame to be levelled in all directions: a Tory-Lib Dem local authority, a Labour government, a Conservative Mayor and multinational corporations have all played parts, of variable importance, in delaying the scheme. It’s a great London story, you’d think, for a bit of investigative journalism – human drama, political incompetence, corporate greed – and all on the boundary of Zone 1, as well.

Time, then,  to check the coverage in London’s very own paper – you, know, the one that was sorry for being complacent, predictable, etc.

Wednesday – nothing, but then they wouldn’t have known for certain that the deadline was going to be missed before the paper went to bed.

Thursday – Hmm. Still nothing. The print edition finds room for a double page spread on Carla Bruni’s friend, a page on some road reconfiguration in the West End and the City Spy column reprints the previous day’s Mandelson-Osborne spat as if it was hot off the press gossip.

Friday – Two days on, still nothing. I thought a column in the property section entitled “Mammoth project that may turn into a white elephant” would surely be about the pachyderm-related Elephant & Castle regeneration. Nope – it’s some new development in EC3.

I don’t think you could want for a better demonstration that whilst the faces at the Standard have changed, its news values – which were what really dragged it down hill – haven’t changed. It’s still to all intents and purposes a rag for and about west London socialites. Poorer, more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods south of the river need not apply for coverage. Further delays to the Elephant are big news for many thousands of people in Southwark and beyond – but the newspaper either deliberately ignores, or simply overlooks – no doubt through a lack of basic newsgathering skills for areas outside of the Notting Hill triangle – what may be the biggest story of the year for the borough in which their paper is printed.

In the comments on the site, excellent Charlton blogger 853 (prompted by the paper’s apparent support for Richard Branson’s plans to remove the Marathon route from ‘unglamarous’ Greenwich) takes departing Standard scribe Andrew Gilligan to task over the newspaper’s utter disinterest in south London, particularly the eastern quadrant. As he rightly says:

I don’t think there’s a well-worn dartboard in the editor’s office with Lewisham as the bullseye, but it’s the whole error by omission thing, isn’t it? South-east London is rarely covered, and when has been recently it’s been dismissed – the Olympics piece above, Jenkins’ old crap about Crossrail, and and its dismissal of transport improvements around here as “vanity projects”. 

The complete failure to cover the Elephant is another example of error by omission. Memo to Messrs Grieg and Lebvedev: if you want to expand your circulation, you have to expand your market base. Why should a resident of the Heygate Estate shell out 50p for a paper that doesn’t see fit to cover what is (or rather is not) happening to them? Campaigning for a ‘seat for every commuter’ taps you into one market, no matter how unachievable the campaign aim. But what about campaigning for ‘a decent home for every Londoner’? It won’t sell many more editions amongst the Tunbridge Wells-bound passengers of the 17:38 from Cannon Street, but it might sell a few on the number 12 bendy bus down the Walworth Road. Just a thought.

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