Southwark Lib Dems, Ministry of Sound, Oakmayne, and the BBC: the story continues…

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I reported here on the controversy surrounding a planning application in Southwark, objected to by the Ministry of Sound, a donor to the local Lib Dems.

The BBC’s coverage of the story felt partial, fixated on alleging ‘no smoke without fire’ political sleaze, failing to question whether they were being played by property developers looking to overturn a decision they didn’t like.

The Corporation has now returned to the story: Lib Dems warned over Ministry of Sound donations. (Ironically the article’s by Ed Davey. I assume not that one.)

This is the over-hyped headline to accompany the somewhat mundane reality: that the Lib Dem councillors who voted on the planning application were advised by the borough solicitor to consider ‘whether they can approach this with a completely open mind and judge it on its merits irrespective of consequences for their party’s funding… If they believe they can then they can legitimately take part in the committee. If they think this issue will impact on their decision, they should stand down.’ I think that’s called advice rather than a warning.

The BBC then gives generous space to quotes from the chairman of the property company whose application was rejected — who unsurprisingly is unenamoured by Southwark Lib Dems.

Only towards the end of its report does the BBC recognise there might be a second side to the story, and note that the Ministry of Sound is also unhappy at the planning process followed, and specifically the close relationship between the property company and Southwark council officials:

It has said it is concerned that former Southwark Council employees advised Oakmayne’s bid. The club said these included the former leader of the council Jeremy Fraser and a former project manager for the Elephant and Castle area. One of the architects involved is chairman of the council’s design review panel, which examines potential developments in the borough. In an official complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman, also obtained by BBC London, Ministry of Sound’s Lohan Presencer said: “This is not conducive to fair decision-making. An extremely close relationship exists between the council and developers, particularly Oakmayne.”

To be clear, based on what I’ve read (third-hand media reports only) there is no reason to believe impropriety from any of the players in this story. The BBC is right to probe and to ask questions: that is journalists’ job.

But what I dislike about Ed Davey’s report (and the earlier anonymous BBC report) is that the media would much prefer to assume political corruption, and will happily fling innuendo around — and leave alone the tougher job of asking questions of the motivations of others.