Grenfell Tower – comments on the long long London Review of Books article

Just before the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire, the London Review of Books gave over almost all of an issue to one long article by novelist Andrew O’Hagan – called ‘The Tower’. I haven’t linked directly to it, but it is easily found by going to the London Review of Books website.

The article has been praised by some readers, but a number of people including many close to the Grenfell community have expressed their unhappiness with many aspects of the article. People have and challenged its accuracy, questioned why it appeared as sympathetic as it did to Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, and taken exception to some of the language used about the victims of the fire and in the local activist groups. (This article by Gavriel Hollander in New Statesman summarises many of these concerns. I will try to post some other links later.)

Like many commentators, I too felt the article set up something of a ‘straw man’, in suggesting that the overriding media message has been that ‘the council were to blame’ – despite the extensive investigations into numerous other factors – of course, in particular, the role of the construction industry.

Even though in theory some of what Mr O’Hagan discussed would be worth looking into, I found too much of the article at odds with my existing understanding, which inevitably made it harder to trust the author’s words elsewhere in the article.

But what perhaps surprised me most, coming as it did from a journal that carries a lot of reportage, was how poorly argued and sloppily written the article was.

As the rather wonderful spoken response to Mr O’Hagan’s article by poet and writer Potent Whisper put it here “60,000 words! He must think that he’s impressing us. I just think the editor at large needs an editor.”

I sent a long comment to the magazine, written from my point of view as a journalist. It is unlikely that they will publish it, because it is so long. So I am sharing it below – more or less (though not exactly) as I sent it.

Dear London Review of Books,

I was surprised by a number of aspects Andrew O’Hagan’s extremely long article about Grenfell, ‘The Tower’.

I was surprised by the emphasis on media coverage, and on where that coverage was unfair to the council. Although there is perhaps a tale to tell here,  this theme dominates this piece at exhaustive length, without it being clear exactly why that topic was important enough to justify such emphasis.

I was surprised by the inaccuracies (including those commented on elsewhere, I think plausibly). I was surprised by the occasionally dismissive or demeaning tone towards people who had been though unimaginable tragedy. And throughout the piece I was surprised by the number of – and dependence upon – unsubstantiated assertions; not least because the article contained repeated complaints about – unsubstantiated assertions. The non-specific passive case that editors usually pounce on (‘it is believed’ ‘it was said’)  crops up again and again.

Coverage of the coverage

In a couple of places the author identifies the real “culprits”: “manufacturers, and those who help them get away with unacceptable standards of fire safety”, yet he suggests that these aspects have been and will be ignored by other reporters and commentators. Yet these precise factors were examined many times, in much of the media coverage, from very early on,  including by the BBC (eg Newsnight) Sky News, the  Independent, Guardian etc- as well of course as the construction press, much of whose coverage would have been readily accessible to Mr O’Hagan and his team.

(see for example Sky news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-gFmV_i86c ,Newsnight https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pS3cIF6g24 the Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/grenfell-tower-fire-flammable-cladding-varieties-not-tested-government-a7830446.html , the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/long-builder-chain-for-grenfell-a-safety-and-accountability-issue , https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/experts-warned-government-against-cladding-material-used-on-grenfell )

But Mr O’Hagan overlooks this, stating instead that “Other people would be found to blame” He then devotes a great part of the article defending those people – the local authority – who were in Mr O’Hagan’s analysis, “found to blame”.

“From the minute people started talking to the media, it was generally accepted [note the passive case] that the council had done nothing at all to help the victims, that it had caused the fire, and that they, as Tories, hated people who lived in social housing. You see it in the earliest reports. It was a set of suspicions, or wishes, swiftly taken for granted.”

The author doesn’t give any examples of this coverage. And he certainly doesn’t demonstrate that it was “generally accepted” that the council had caused the fire.

Even the articles and broadcasts that made much of the role of the council, did not necessarily hold it exclusively responsible. Two early reports, for example, cover government regulation in at least as much detail, and apportion at least as much blame there – one from the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/17/grenfell-tower-government-councils-fire-safety; and the very early Panorama (‘Britain’s Shame’) from just five days after the fire, which examines a range of failings and concludes by blaming “the state” and “the system” – not just the council or the TMO.

This is not to say that the coverage of the council has necessarily always been fair, and it is valid for Mr O’Hagan to examine this (though not at such exhaustive length). It does not, however, mean that all the other journalists who have written on this subject only blamed the council, and ignored everything else. This simply isn’t true. A very great deal of media coverage was looking at the “culprits in the case” as defined by Mr O’Hagan, right from the outset.

In one of the few places the author suggests a reason for his emphasis, he says “a toxic brand of cheap compassion threatened, from early on, to distract us from finding out what really caused those deaths.”  Did it really? And if it did, did it succeed? I don’t think it did, even if this threat was substantial enough to worry about – which he hasn’t demonstrated.

The article reveals clearly just how much access the team had to – and how much sympathy the author has with, the council. I am mystified as to the relevance to this tragedy of, for example, Councillor Fielding Mellon’s mother’s bohemian lifestyle and choice of attire. To be honest, it feels disrespectful to those who lost lives, loved ones, or their homes – though that is my personal response.

As I am a journalist, you might feel I too am biased. Well, yes I might be. None of us can assert confidently we are purely objective; knowledge is a lot more complicated than that. And I am certainly sensitive to suggestions that  the media “began to turn the fire into the story they wanted it to be. Reality wasn’t good enough, the tragedy wasn’t bad enough, it had to be augmented, it had to be blown up” or that for journalists “a rush of personal conviction has – for reasons of economic necessity – overwhelmed the essential dynamics of professional doubt. Newsfeeds don’t have time for doubt. ‘Go with your feeling’ is the motto.” Journalism “had lost the power to treat reality fairly”.

I do take it personally, because that doesn’t describe the way I go about my work, or the way that any editor I work for now or have done in the past, expects me to go about my work. Editors expect you to be able to stand your assertions up – at the very least by illustrative examples – otherwise you are editorialising. I hold the media I consume to the same standard, and yes, there are lapses. But I’m sorry to say that it was the frequency of unsubstantiated assertions in the London Review of Books piece itself which really stood out to me.

Here are some more examples:  “In an effort to politicise this, activists and media observers, both engaged on a prolonged mission to simplify, speak of the council as if it were the only organisation involved, and speak of the ‘cladding’ as if it were the only issue” [Four assertions, no examples given].

The article enumerates designers, suppliers and contractors (all of whom were identified in media coverage from very early on, as I referenced above) but then loftily asserts: “This pile of names will no doubt irritate the simplifiers during the several years it takes for the inquiry to provide an answer.” This is throwaway speculation.  As a “media observer who isn’t Andrew O’Hagan” I am indeed irritated – but irritated by the assumption that I want to simplify the story, and that my colleagues and I know nothing and care less about the construction industry’s role in the disaster – or indeed, the due process of the inquiry.

Mr O’Hagan rightly points out that “The tower’s vulnerability lay in a network of negligence that was beyond the capacity of any one man, and beyond the failings of any one material,” but then implies this is being ignored because “Some truths are just too long to put in a headline.” Apart from headlines from the BBC, the New York Times, the construction press, Sky News….. Did the LRB team not look at this coverage, or was it [perish the thought] inconvenient to the author’s belief that he is the only writer out there interested in the truth?

“Looking for facts: asking what they meant and what the opposite meant and going back to the start. It seemed pointless sometimes, as if I was rehearsing an old way of doing things, hunting for facts, believing in them, when the news was all fiction and the story was sorted.”

This self-identification of the writer as a lone seeker of truth ranged against the perfidy of all other journalists, informs much of piece. Yet example headlines are not brought out to illustrate this. It is just asserted. Assertions are what make straw men. They aren’t enough to make a useful case.

The Grenfell Action Group – and what “we” apparently believed and wanted

The Grenfell Action Group is mentioned in quite a few places – and Mr O’Hagan treats this group with scepticism, from the first substantive mention:

“Many allegations have been made by the Grenfell Action Group. Like a lot of people, I had been thinking about their ‘warnings’ since the night of the fire.”

Why the inverted commas around ‘warnings’? Even the person he is interviewing when he makes this reference to the group, introduced to us as a fire expert, agrees that what they had been saying was important in that it revealed a catalogue of neglect of safety issues in the building.

Mr O’Hagan does not explain who the group are, though he quickly makes assertions about their world view: “The Grenfell Action Group hate the Tory council. Over many years, the council had been the enemy and to them every move it makes stinks of corruption,” is the next thing he says about them.

How do we know whether or not this is the Action Group’s view? Perhaps from the group’s own words – so where are they? Or perhaps the insight came from this interview with a council worker, who is reported later in the article as saying “..this Grenfell group was political. They hated everything the council and the TMO did, no matter what.” Has Mr O’Hagan taken their word, or does he have other reasons for his view? I don’t know.

The article contains several other instances of  the author telling us what other people felt – the Grenfell Action Group, the media, the public at large.

“The oppositional tone [the GAG] took with ‘rich toffs’ from Kensington and Chelsea Council suited both the sense of public outrage over Grenfell and the wish for instant retribution,” Whose wish for instant retribution? The coverage I saw addressed how complicated it was going to be to find out what had gone wrong and to identify those likely to have been most responsible. I doubt if anyone really thought there would only be one villain, I certainly didn’t, and the media coverage I saw didn’t either.

This makes me wonder about the media Mr O’Hagan was reading at the time – but I shouldn’t be wondering, he should be showing us, and showing how it was dominated by the views of the Action Group, if he wants us to believe that it was. But he merely describes or implies this:

“Very early in the morning, as the tower still burned, people began mobilising these arguments and creating a high judicial platform for them.” Which people? What ‘high judicial platform’? “We wanted political scalps before the fire was out,” What we? “even if it meant that the worst failures of the night would take a long time to be recognised. A game of political name-calling and blaming began, which appeared, for the better part of the coming year, to meet the needs of a world that demanded stock villains. It was a sign of the times…”

I resent being included in that “we” – not least because it’s clear that Mr O’Hagan doesn’t include himself, and is setting himself apart from and above those of us whose  desires, and work,  he is judging – identifying himself as belonging to an older, more factual age, and not these inferior times.

The observation that journalism is less objective than it could be, and less reliable than the media would like their readers/listeners to think, is not a new one. But O’Hagan adds little to the case, and what he does bring is so dependent upon exaggeration, unsubstantiated assertions and  generalisations of the author’s own, that the article undermines its own credibility.

“In a world of perpetual commentary in which everyone and anyone is allowed their own facts, accusation stands as evidence,” he writes. I assume the irony of this phrase was lost on the writer and his editors when this went to press. However, it wasn’t lost on me.

I do indeed deplore journalism that allows accusation to stand as evidence. Accusations are empty without the backing of facts, quotes and examples. So Mr O’Hagan, please give us facts, quotes and examples. Don’t let your accusations stand as evidence.

 

The real culprits …

Where the article does look into the construction industry’s role, it also falls back on unsubstantiated assertions. “The plastic insulation industry is one of the most litigious in the world, but it is common knowledge among fire safety experts that their advertisements and their tests are bogus.” Again that passive case – “it is common knowledge” – how do you know this? How do we know this? Why isn’t this illustrated, explained and backed up?

“The marketing of insulation products is notably misleading and contractors are known to use combinations of products that have not been tested together.” Known by whom? In fact this is true – but I wouldn’t believe it if I had only read it here, because it isn’t justified with evidence and sources. And if the author did not feel qualified to discuss this himself, he could have referred readers to other sources – except of course in his world view, they don’t exist!

“It is argued..”  by whom? where? “…that the material wrapped around the exterior of the tower – Celotex RS5000 insulation and a Reynobond cladding covered in aluminium, with a polyethylene core and a 50 mm cavity between the insulation and the cladding – was ‘tested’ on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” As I understand it no such desk top test has been revealed for this particular combination. If the LRB has seen one, that would be quite a scoop.

And in his account of events “fire escaped from a kitchen and was funneled rapidly upwards through the wide cavities and across the unstopped boundaries between the flats, combusting the Celotex insulation which in turn combusted the Reynobond aluminium panels.” I don’t know if this is a verified account of the progress of the fire? What is the source for this? It might be significant to know whether the Celotex ignited the cladding or vice versa (FWIW it seems from what I have read to have been likelier to have been the cladding that ignited first) – so has he read a forensic report about this?

Selective blame – not that there is any politicising going on here of course….

Although Mr O’Hagan identifies, correctly in my view, the ‘war on red tape’ , exacerbated by cuts in public spending, for allowing building regulation and its enforcement to become dangerously relaxed, and potentially degrading the emergency services ability to respond, he mentions only the Blair governments by name:

“…that began to change during the Blair era and there has been a flurry of reductions in the fire service …”

“Over the last twenty years pressure groups working on behalf of the construction industries, encouraged by the Blair government’s deregulation mania and the ‘commercialisation of safety’ that came with it”,

“Councils all over the country were victims of serial perversions of safety standards, overseen by government agencies going back to 1997.”

Yes, deregulation mania may have begun under Blair – or, indeed, it may have begun under Thatcher (where public spending cuts certainly took off). But both ramped up after 2010, as for example a widely shared video of David Cameron pledging to ‘end the health and safety culture’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOBPe4RCTXU) illustrates.

This is an odd omission. Under Cameron’s government, we gained ‘austerity’, and deregulation was official policy , with legislation (The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015),  targets, and rules such as the infamous “one in two out”.

Here is then business secretary Sajid Javid in 2016 announcing how the government was ramping up ‘one in two out’ to ‘one in three out’. The speech was headlined “Getting government off your back: our commitment to cutting red tape” in which “Sajid Javid tells British businesses about the next stage of the government’s deregulation agenda.”

“We’re also introducing a new rule for government departments.

“In the last Parliament we introduced a policy called ‘One in, two out’.

“It meant that every time a new regulation that cost money to comply with was introduced, the government had to remove or modify existing rules with double the cost to business. For every 1 pound of regulatory burden we created, 2 pounds worth had to be removed.

“Today I can announce that we’re upgrading that to ‘One in, three out.

“If departments want to bring in new regulatory costs for things that weren’t in our manifesto, they will be expected to find savings worth 3 times as much.

“This won’t be easy to achieve. But it will certainly focus the minds of policymakers.”

Not just Blair then.

Demeaning and belittling of people affected by the fire

“Several of the residents we spoke to – Antonio Roncolato, Karim Mussilhy, the Alves family – were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the council.” Isn’t this ‘both ears’ a bit snide?

When pondering why the council became such a “locus of hatred” after the fire,  the author speculates: “The answer may lie in what could be called the dislocations of compassion. It may seem right, in these times, to place compassion before composure, and to feel insulted by authorities who appear to think when they should be feeling.” (“It may seem right to the rest of you, but not to me”, I think the author means.)

“I’ve never met two Tories exactly the same, but I suspect that in North Kensington there is a deeply founded suspicion, among a small vocal group – a group that had lived with a Tory council for ever and were sick of it – that these posh individuals, the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names, their affinity with private development and their expensive educations, were sitting ducks.”

The use of “sitting duck” implies that the anger meted out to the councillors was deliberately disproportionate – I’m not sure this is fair. But look too at his two uses of “suspect/suspicion” . Mr O’Hagan is allowed to “suspect” without challenging himself,  but other people’s suspicion is – well – suspect.

The article relates some of the stories that arose shortly after the fire, of people saying they had seen others jumping, or catching falling babies, where it subsequently turned out that some of these incidents could not have happened as reported. Even in Mr O’Hagan’s telling, one senses that in the chaos and terror people misunderstood or misremembered what they had been seeing. Yet he says, I think unkindly, that these stories were repeated because: “it seems that real heroism is never quite enough.” He doesn’t specify enough for whom, so the impression hangs over this paragraph – at least for me – that he is suggesting that real heroism was “never enough” for those eyewitnesses.

These accounts were, unsurprisingly, reported by media at the time. Yes, perhaps they should have been treated a little more cautiously (though O’Hagan gives no quotes from contemporaneous media so we don’t actually know how they *were* reported). But in the confusion, panic, terror and anguish it is not surprising that people were not always correctly interpreting what their eyes and ears were telling them, that memories were not always clear. But this doesn’t mean people were making the stories up.

Which is why this sentence makes me uncomfortable: “When Samira Lamrani, one of those who claimed to have seen the baby thrown out of the window, was asked to reflect on exactly what she had seen, she said: ‘My memory of that night is fading.’

Again, this is my reading, but I hear in this an insinuation that she made it up deliberately, but didn’t want to say so.

“Was asked to reflect” – I do hope this wasn’t “was bullied into questioning her memory by O’Hagan or one of his researchers.” This is a danger of the passive case – it leaves the reader the opportunity to fill in the blanks with their own prejudices.

Then there is the now notorious insult about the unsubstantiated assertions of – not professional and well-paid journalists – but angry, traumatised people seeking to claw some justice out of a terrible, terrible situation:

“I met with countless activists, and recorded what they said, checking it as I did with every witness. They had loud voices and good causes but what they didn’t have was facts. I have quoted from their blogs and referred to their accusations, but I had trouble substantiating them. At times they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding, but when I tried to follow them up, I couldn’t prove them right.”

Well bully for you Mr O’Hagan, bully for you.

There may well be some content of merit in sections of this article. However, the loose and unsubstantiated style in which a lot of it is written eroded my interest early on, and demolished my respect for the publication. Why should I bother to finish an article which had been produced with such little care – however much background research had been done?

Here’s a thought. There were two or three interesting features or essays in here. Perhaps 3-5000 words apiece, which could have been greatly enhanced by the insights of others who have also spent time thinking about, for example, the challenges of 24-hour rolling media; people’s reaction to trauma and the need for a sense of restoration and justice; the demonisation of local government;  or the interaction of public services with deregulation and privatisation – they could have made good reads.

But I’m not sure Mr O’Hagan is your author. He doesn’t seem to be very impressed by what people think – unless of course they are Andrew O’Hagan.