How the media failed Grenfell

The tragedy was both predictable and preventable. Yet neither politicians nor the press fully heeded the lessons of earlier disasters until it was too late

November 01, 2019
A forensics officer inspects debris at the scene of a fire in Lakanal House. Photo: PA
A forensics officer inspects debris at the scene of a fire in Lakanal House. Photo: PA

Let’s start with a simple fact: the fire at Grenfell Tower was predictable and preventable. And it could still happen somewhere else today. It happened because local, city and national governments failed to intervene on fire safety the last time they were called on to do so.

At the conclusion of the 2013 inquest into the 2009 Lakanal House fire, which killed six people, ministers and public officials were given firm recommendations by the coroner. At the core of these was the advice that the “stay put” policy—which advises residents of tower blocks to stay in their homes, to compartmentalise the fire – be reviewed.

A failure to rectify big holes in the fire safety regime for public housing made a fire like the one at Grenfell Tower almost inevitable—even after the hard lessons learned in the wake of Lakanal. One of my abiding memories as a special correspondent for the BBC covering the Lakanal House inquest, was when a witness said: “I can’t imagine what would have happened if this fire had broken out at night.” Now we know.

Blame game

There is a sense in which the plight of residents—so much in the news in the wake of Grenfell—was poorly served by the media in the years after Lakanal. Little public scrutiny, for example, of whether the recommendations of the Lakanal inquest had been implemented, and little outrage at politicians passing the buck when changes were clearly necessary. When disaster befell Grenfell, journalistic overdrive could not bring back those lost lives. Journalists had missed the boat.

Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian, said it was a sign of the demise of a robust local press. There is something to be said for that argument. No investigative instincts were needed to pick up on the fire safety risks that the Grenfell Action Group repeatedly raised on their public website—journalists just needed to convince an editor it was a story worth telling.

I’m afraid the evidence shows that between 2013 and 2017, journalism failed to hold those responsible for fire safety to account—with the exception of specialist journal Inside Housing, which made this a key topic of interest.

For the media to now condemn the London Fire Brigade for the problems at Grenfell Tower risks deflecting responsibility from those most culpable: the ministers, government advisers and civil servants who sat on their hands and ignored the findings from the Lakanal inquest. Of course, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) made mistakes at Grenfell Tower, as they did at Lakanal House. Phase one of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry highlighted serious failings in their handling of the unfolding emergency.

But the LFB was not responsible for the maintenance of the building—nor its design. In fact, it was a complex web involving the the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, arms-length management companies, contractors, designers and manufacturers that oversaw the conditions that led to the fire. Phase two of the public inquiry will seek to untangle these circumstances, and begins taking evidence in early 2020.

Making homes safe

There are key practical take-aways from the public inquiry thus far. One of the firmest (and in many people’s views, most obvious) recommendations of Justice Moore-Bick’s phase one report from the ongoing inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is that the “stay put” policy no longer serves the public interest. But if landlords are to follow through on removing and replacing the “stay put” policy, there will need to be effective evacuation plans in place for residents of every single tower block across the UK.

Furthermore, if “stay put” is no longer common sense, building regulations need to reflect that. There must no longer be a presumption that flats are contained units, which can block a fire from spreading. Instead, there must be an assumption that fire can, and will, spread. Safe evacuations will require sturdy fire doors, sheltered exit routes and functioning sprinkler systems—even retro-fitted ones.

There will be reluctance from those who will have to pay the bill – namely local authority landlords, private freeholders and leaseholders. But there is no alternative to secure people’s safety and well-being. The mental health costs to those living in fear of what could happen to them and their families hasn’t yet been fully accounted for.

Regulations save lives

But as I argue in my forthcoming book chapter, there is also a vital role for journalism in tackling the fallout from events like Grenfell. Not only must it respond to disaster and tell those stories truthfully—it must also deal with the consequences of those events, and propel forward crucial debates, such as how disaster-afflicted communities can be rebuilt, and how trust in public authorities might be restored if they are found at fault.

It must also pursue those in power to deliver the required changes to stop such disasters happening again. Journalism failed in the wake of the Lakanal inquest. Journalists may not make the decisions in the corridors of power, but they can keep challenging such decisions if they do not serve the public interest. Let us hope that out of Grenfell comes an enduring lesson for British journalism. Readers do expect public interest journalism: they want journalists to speak truth to power—and there’s no further scope for journalists to forfeit that trust by taking their eyes off the proverbial ball.

“Regulation” has become a dirty word in the current political climate – that cannot continue, regardless of the prevailing ideology of the UK government. Going forward, public authorities need to establish fail-safe ways to ensure landlords of tower blocks are held unequivocally accountable for meeting regulations and safety standards.

The current law defining fire safety responsibilities—the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005—makes it too easy for landlords to shirk their duties. That was the basis of the tragedy at Lakanal House, and the national disgrace at Grenfell Tower, because the problem was exposed and then ignored for the four years between the two fires.

Grenfell Tower still stands as a monument to corporate and government incompetence, which caused the unnecessary deaths of 72 people. Clearly, fire services around the country have a role to play here. But again, journalists must take stock of relevant context in their reports: the UK government has been enforcing an austerity programme that has led to local authorities cutting public resources for firefighting. And emergency services are not solely responsible for ensuring that freeholders maintain their buildings properly.

As the Grenfell Action Group discovered in the months before the tragedy, even with a public website disseminating damaging information about seriously lax fire safety, getting those in authority to listen is a struggle. It can still be difficult for residents to challenge landlords who maintain that their cladding is not a fire risk, since the government will currently only fund the removal of aluminium composite material cladding. Comparing cladding is not as straightforward as contrasting bricks and wood. Tenants need somewhere to go to get informed, impartial advice.

While talk continues about what needs to be done, there has still never been a thorough national audit of the safety of tower blocks across the country—despite persistent efforts from self-financed groups like Tower Blocks UK, and an earlier piecemeal review to look at emergency fire safety arrangements by auditing information held by local authorities and housing associations.

Having a national register of tower blocks, including details of construction and materials, is not beyond the capabilities of modern government. This has to be a logical starting point to gather information on their current condition and safety risks—before tragedy strikes once again.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.