I Wrote About The Grenfell Tower Scandal 27 Years Ago — And This Is What Happened
We stood in the entrance hall to Grenfell Tower and knew that it was an accident waiting to happen. Electric wiring open to the elements, fire extinguishers that were either broken or stolen, insecure fire doors, lifts that were forever out of order, a lack of lighting that made crime in and around the building more likely. Angry, exasperated and bewildered residents pleaded with me — me! — to help them do something about it because they knew that things were on a knife-edge, that the building could even go up in flames if more funds weren’t spent on health and safety.
That was 27 years ago. And these past few days, after the horrific fire that killed still-unknown scores in Grenfell, I’ve been thinking endlessly about that meeting and many others — with residents’ groups, local politicians, Kensington and Chelsea Council housing officials and police officers. Instead of the blackened skeleton that scars West London, in my mind’s eye I can picture perfectly the proud concrete pillar that, as a local reporter on and then editor of the local Kensington newspaper, was the focal point of so many stories we would write.
Not just that it was a fire hazard and that the concerns of local politicians and their constituents were being ignored. But stories of the small community fetes, newly-launched fitness sessions at the local church hall, the first generation immigrant whose four As at A-level propelled them into a top university, the cake-baking children who were trying to raise funds next Saturday to buy new outfits for that year’s Notting Hill Carnival.
I had forgotten about those stories until this week. And I had forgotten about my first week on the Kensington News, when the then leader of the borough’s Labour group, Rima Horton –inspirational, quick-witted and not a little scary — walked me round the area and conspiratorially said: ‘You can make a real difference here. A story in the local paper, getting their picture in somewhere, won’t just lift them, it will give them fuel to fight for what’s right.’
Somewhere in the bowels of a newspaper library, my byline will be above all manner of stories about Kensington and Notting Hill. My mother — of course — diligently saved the cuttings and when she died I foolishly threw them away. I’m not one for lingering on the past. I suspect there will have been one or two about the dangers posed to residents of Grenfell Tower. Amid the howls of rage, these stories — not necessarily about Grenfell — will have included bland statements from the council, the then housing chief Nicholas Pagett-Brown and, I think, his memorable colleague Merrick Cockell.
Cockell went on to become leader of K&C council and vigorously pursued efficiency policies that ensured local residents paid the lowest council tax in the country. It was an extraordinary boast for those of us who could see how much help deprived parts of the borough required and how much tax would need to be raised to improve housing, education and security for all those who weren’t among the property-owning middle classes.
Sir Merrick was recently knighted for services to local government and has been a close adviser to London Mayors Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. Pagett-Brown is now his successor as council leader and a man who is rightly being targeted for leading an appalling response to the Grenfell disaster.
I used to interview them and their colleagues on a daily basis, shadowed them in council meetings, analysed their proposals and put concerns of residents directly to them. I wasn’t just a reporter. I was a conduit, a campaigner-by-proxy, an accidental member of a fractious, neglected and welcoming community that I knew nothing about until I landed that cub reporter job.
My subsequent newspaper career was spent working on most national newspapers and learning from some of the most talented journalists one could hope to call colleagues, but no job was as meaningful and important to me as that one. The intensity of the relationship between local reporter and subject is unequalled in journalism.
We talk about community and religious leaders as being the lifeblood of neighbourhoods but we forget that local newspapers are too. There are an essential ingredient in the fabric of society, a cornerstone of democracy. Or were. Recent research suggest that up to 80 per cent of UK local newspaper journalism jobs have gone since 2006, and almost 200 titles have closed in the past decade. According to research last year from media analysts at Enders, circulations of local titles have halved since 2007 from 50.5m a week to 26.6m. At the same time, print advertising has fallen from £2.7bn to £977m.
The BBC has tried recently to redress this decline by employing more local reporters and sharing resources with local news groups because it knows that all news is local, or at least it starts off that way. Inquests, crimes, court stories, tales of derring-do and extraordinary sacrifice, business and political scandals, campaigns to improve lives.
Frequently derided for cat-stuck-up-tree stories, local papers have always held people in power to account while understanding on an intimate level the pulse of a community. Meeting people daily, listening to their tales of woe (some admittedly far-fetched) and forever trying to look at not just the ‘what’ of a story but the why, how and who.
And most importantly of all, we local newspaper journalists were driven by a selfish impulse that we never really shared with those we spoke with. Not just for a great story to keep them and the editor happy but a great story that would lift us out of this supposedly humdrum existence and into the gleaming offices of a national newspaper — especially, in London, of the Evening Standard.
Because 20-odd years ago, local newspapers mattered. They had access to people, information and events that made genuinely important stories. It was why door-stopper council agendas sent in the post were among the most important documents local reporters received. We pored over every single one of them to find potentially interesting leads. Such as committee debates about whether or not to use flammable cladding in tower block renovation works and the suspect backgrounds of companies chosen to carry out those works.
Those stories rarely make it into the public consciousness unless an enthusiastic local reporter, seeking the thrill of bylined fame and fuelled by the hopeful expectations of a local community desperate for their voices to be heard, takes it upon him or herself to get it out there. And because their future career rested on it, the story would have to be water-tight.
Twenty-odd years ago, our outlet was the Evening Standard because it carried so much local news and was focused on standing up for Londoners before things happened rather than after the event. It was what local councillors feared — their names exposed beyond the confines of the crummy little publications and poorly-dressed irritant reporters they were forced to engage with.
I don’t know whether a vibrant local newspaper staffed by idealistic young journalists who watched All The President’s Men way to often and thought they could somehow change the world, would have prevented the catastrophe all of London has been indelibly scarred by. But it could have. The warning signs were there and the pleas of residents’ groups are plentiful, especially online.
We are rightly in awe of our digitised media because of its awesome speed and power — to expose wrongdoings, hold people to account and mobilise people to take action. But these things nearly always occur after the event and their immense impact is often momentary, rather than significant. Plus, the veracity of much that we see, especially on social media channels, is highly debatable and, thus, counter-effective.
I know the days of powerful local newspapers are over but the stories they typically once covered are more plentiful than ever, especially in cities where decisions — not scrutinised — are being taken every day that affect the lives of residents. Local newspapers and their websites are still making valiant efforts to report community stories but staffing levels mean that there’s little time for patient, revelatory journalism. And, in fact, many ‘local’ journalists don’t even work in the districts that they write about — and I doubt very much whether they devour those council agendas in the way that we used to.
Perhaps the new editor of the Evening Standard could withhold his bloodlust for national political revenge and re-energise a new, localised movement in which the decisions and plans of local governments are once again in the daily journalistic spotlight.
The people who were in some way involved in bad practice will undoubtedly be punished for the deaths of Grenfell residents. I wonder though whether they are convenient scapegoats and if the people behind those people — who made the decisions and for what reason — will ever have to answer for their actions.