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EPA-EFE/Lauren Hurley

Grenfell Tower: warnings might have been heard if not for the collapse of local journalism

The delay to the publication of the report into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which claimed 72 lives in a disastrous – and possibly preventable – fire at the London tower block, has been greeted with dismay and anger by survivors and their supporters.

Inquiry solicitor Caroline Featherstone said, in a letter to survivors and people who lost family in the fire, that writing the first phase of the report proved to be “far more complex and time-consuming” than anticipated. Its release has been pushed back to October.

The big question that needs to be answered is whether Grenfell should have have happened at all – and why nobody picked up on the very public warnings from tower residents that just such a tragedy was likely to happen. A growing chorus of voices from local and national journalism has pinpointed the absence of dedicated local media around Grenfell, saying nobody was looking.

Six months before the fire struck, Grenfell Tower residents had flagged their serious concerns about the tower in a post on their well-established community blog which specifically highlight the very real risk of “a serious fire”.

Why were these warnings not heeded? The tenants’ blog had repeatedly flagged serious safety concerns which would ordinarily be a rich source of local news for on-the-beat reporters.

Desperate times

Dominic Ponsford, the editor of the UK’s Press Gazette, told me in a telephone interview in August 2017 that the number of local journalists has fallen by at least a half in the past decade. He also described regional print media to be in “fairly desperate times” facing a year-on-year, 10% decline in print presence.

June 14, one year after 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, people attend a solidarity silent walk to mark the anniversary. EPA-EFE/Lauren Hurley

Ponsford has chronicled the issue of the lack of local media coverage about Grenfell. He highlighted that despite the openly available warnings from Grenfell residents on their blog site, which should have been essential reading for local journalists, no journalists picked up the November 2016 prediction about the catastrophe to come.

Geoff Baker was news editor for the Kensington and Chelsea News from its relaunch in 2014, until he was made redundant through cuts in April 2017. His only reporter left the company a few months earlier. He also covered four other west London titles in his role. Baker told the Press Gazette in September 2018:

If someone had phoned me or sent me a release I would have done it, but it just didn’t come on the radar, simple as that. Just because there’s so much else to do if you are doing it on your tod. To my huge regret I wish that I had … Whether that would have made the council change their minds I very much doubt it… It was simply that I didn’t have the time to pull out all the stops because all the stops were already pulled out on other things.

Grant Feller is a journalist and corporate media consultant. He began his career on the Kensington News and Chelsea News, the two titles had an editorial team of ten and faced competition for stories from the Kensington and Chelsea Times and the Evening Standard (which then devoted more resources to local borough stories).

Asked whether he thought the concerns of residents would have been picked up by the Kensington News in 1990, Feller told the Press Gazette: “One hundred per cent yes, we would have picked up on that.”

If we hadn’t found that story ourselves we would have been bollocked by the editor. Any local newspaper journalist worth his or her salt would have been all over that story because of that blog. We would have known about that local group’s concerns because we were very much in the local community. We would have pored over the council meeting agendas and asked questions of the councillors and the officers. But today there is no-one there. Those people can do what they like because there’s no journalists looking at what they are doing. That’s why local journalism is so important.

Democratic deficit

In the past decade, hundreds of local UK newspapers have closed and each week brings news of more. Thousands of jobs have gone. Media owners have taken to trying to retrieve revenue from online content. As a result the journalists’ “nose for news” has been downgraded with journalists’ editorial priority now to chase stories designed to drive an audience online.

Candyfloss videos of squirrels chasing puppies and crime coverage from cheap CCTV footage is popular with online readers but, as Liverpool City Council’s chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald, told me in March 2017, it risks ghettoising cities with crime heavy stories that can scare off people planning to move into or invest in the area.

More and more media commentators are warning of the “democratic deficit” created by the decline of local journalism. Matt Chorley, in his “Red Box” column in The Times, said: “Every time a paper closes, lazy MPs, corrupt councilors, dodgy police chiefs, rip off businesses and anyone in the dock can relax a little. This isn’t just nostalgia. The great and the good didn’t stop behaving badly because we all got Snapchat and iPlayer. Grenfell Tower tells us what happens when poorer areas lose their voice in the local media. Blogs aren’t enough.”

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