It’s rare these days that a journalist is allowed more than a couple of hundred words to make a point or argue a case. In the world of Twitter and other ‘social’ media – the inverted commas signifying my belief that this media form is anything but social – you are encouraged to make fast judgements, and the fastest, loudest and most repeated (retweeted) becomes the ‘narrative’.
Thus it is courageous of the London Review of Books (LRB) to give Andrew O’Hagan 60,000 words in its June 2018 issue to dissect the extremely complex circumstances surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire in London on 14 June 2017. His essay, which can be read online here, will, I predict, become an essential text on student journalism courses everywhere. Maybe it should also make it onto Philosophy courses too, because it is a profound study of irresponsibility.
The LRB takes it for granted that a catastrophe as big as this – with 72 deaths the worst residential fire since the Second World War – deserves the space. It assumes that a reader will give it the time and patience. The time O’Hagan spent on the research – he seems to have talked to everyone – is not only staggering but pays off handsomely.
What emerges from his enquiries is the iniquity of facile judgement, aided and abetted by a media – mainstream and other – that wanted to find, pin down, and give ‘the guilty’ a good kicking, and do it faster and more dogmatically than anyone else. Pinning the blame for the fire on the posh-spoken and posh-educated councillors of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was also wrong, factually and morally. For the simple-minded media the narrative quickly became one of rich versus poor, evil versus good, with the council opting for the Tower’s lethal cladding without a care for the possible consequences.
By taking the time required to research and write 60,000 words, O’Hagan demolishes that media-driven fast but false judgement, and delivers a brilliant essay on the complexities involved. He reveals how, for example, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, completely ditched the Conservative councillors of the borough when it became clear that local activists wanted their heads on a platter, even though they were completely blameless for the fire and the deaths. The national political leaders sacrificed their Conservative Party council colleagues to save themselves; Prime Minister May appeared on TV news to insist that all those made homeless would be re-housed “within three weeks”, despite being told by local councillors that this was completely unfeasible. It did not matter that there was no other accommodation immediately available that the Tower’s residents wanted; what was important was that an unpopular Prime Minister should be seen to be doing something. Like everyone else who gained their ‘narrative’ of events from mainstream media, I heard nothing about the dedication and devotion of local council workers and the councillors themselves in the days following the fire.
O’Hagan’s scrupulously careful prose is an indictment not only of successive governments’ housing policies and their oversight of safety standards, but also of our ghastly mass media, which wants everything wrapped up in a soundbite or Tweet. This rapid-response behaviour is destroying our sense of responsibility.
John Swinney, Chair