Most of us by now are familiar with how our national press and media worked to shape public opinion immediately after both the police assault on picket lines at Orgreave Colliery in 1984 that resulted in niney-five charges of riot being made against striking miners, and the death of ninety-six football supporters in the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 that resulted in fans being accused of drunkenness and hooliganism, with neither injustice having subsequently led to a single policeman or politician being convicted of a crime. Since the Grenfell Tower fire officially left seventy-two people dead in June 2017, only six people have been convicted of criminal offences, and that for varying degrees of indecent or fraudulent behaviour in what were non-violent crimes. Reprehensible as their actions were and disrespectful to survivors and the bereaved of North Kensington, the fraudsters have been handed extraordinarily punitive sentences of between 18 months and 4½ years apparently designed to slake the public’s thirst for justice. These have echoes of the similarly exaggerated sentences handed out following the Tottenham riots in 2011, when within six months nearly a thousand working-class and black kids were given custodial sentences on average four times the length handed out for similar offences the year before, with one man jailed for six-months for stealing a bottle of water. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that when property developers claim millions of pounds of public money for their private enterprises it’s called a Private Finance Initiative, but when the poor try to do the same it’s called theft and fraud.
In the meantime, not one of the more than sixty professional contractors, consultants, TMO board members, council officers, councillors, civil servants and politicians responsible in varying degrees for the Grenfell Tower fire that killed over seventy people and made hundreds homeless has even been arrested, let alone sentenced. The findings of the Grenfell inquiry, which only began to listen to evidence last week nearly a year after the fire, cannot rule on either civil or criminal liability even within its drastically narrowed terms of reference. And the Metropolitan Police Service has said that its detectives are a long way from handing over evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, and that the criminal investigation will take years. Again, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the wheels of justice turn at very different speeds depending on who’s in their path. There’s a sizeable portion of the British public that wants – if not expects – that criminal investigation to be on charges of misconduct in public office or gross negligence manslaughter (both of which carry a criminal sentence) rather than corporate manslaughter (which only carries a fine). To prepare the way for that not to happen, and for the perpetrators of this crime to walk away free from the crematorium of Grenfell Tower, a radical change in the public’s opinion of those responsible will be required. Enter Andrew O’Hagan . . .
1. The Tower
On Thursday, 22 June, 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire the previous Wednesday, Architects for Social Housing held an open meeting in the Residents Centre of Cotton Gardens estate in Lambeth. Around 80 people turned up and contributed to the discussion – residents, housing campaigners, journalists, lawyers, academics, engineers and architects. The meeting was filmed by WoolfeVision, and has subsequently been viewed over 20,000 times on YouTube. On 21 July, five weeks after the disaster, partly in response to the disinformation being spread about the tower by Labour politicans who were trying to separate the disaster from the estate regeneration programme their councils are primarily responsible for implementing across London, ASH published its report, ‘The Truth about Grenfell Tower’. We sent this report to Joe Delaney from the Grenfell Action Group, and both they and ASH submitted it for consideration as part of the consultation on the terms of reference for the Grenfell Inquiry, to whom the housing and human rights lawyer, Jamie Burton, wrote on our behalf:
‘This report deals with the causes of the fire at Grenfell. It also speaks to recent government policy, both central and local, towards social housing and council estates in particular. Notably, since the fire, many politicians and commentators have stated publically that the fire was in some way indicative of problems common to all tower blocks and council housing estates. Many of these people assume that council and housing association estates are unsafe, inherently flawed in their design, breeding grounds for anti-social behaviour, and generally undesirable places to live. In fact, the evidence clearly demonstrates the opposite to be true. When properly maintained and refurbished, council estates are excellent places for people to live. The problems that do exist in council estates stem not from their inherent design or purpose, but flawed government policy towards them and their residents – policy that the Grenfell Tower fire has brought into focus.
‘It is unclear whether or not the Grenfell Inquiry will consider existing public policy towards council housing and/or tower blocks generally. We consider that it should, as it is critical to a proper understanding of what happened to the residents of Grenfell Tower on 14 June, 2017. However, if the inquiry is not broadened in this way, then at the very least it must avoid adopting any of the unjustified assumptions some people hold about council housing estates and the tower blocks within them.’
Following the publication of the ASH report, which has since been visited over 15,000 times on our blog, we were contacted for interviews by a wide range of journalists and filmmakers, including from BBC Home Affairs, Panorama, Channel 4 News, the Financial Times, RT News, Al Jazeera, Novara Media, and many other people besides. These included two journalists from the London Review of Books, Josh Stupple and Anthony Wilks, to whom I gave a three-hour interview at the end of August that they filmed, they said, as part of the research they were doing for a long-form article on the fire to be published in the new year. As often happens, many of these interviews came to nothing: the sensationalist Panorama documentary went ahead, but without input from us; and when we refused to toe the Labour opposition’s widely accepted line that the Conservative government’s austerity cuts were to blame for the fire the interview requests dried up too. However, I’m a subscriber to the LRB, which I receive through the letter-box every fortnight, and when the new year had come and gone and the article still hadn’t appeared, I wrote to the editor in March, 2018, not in the hope of being published in its letters section, but as a genuine inquiry about their silence on this event:
‘I’ve lost track of how many articles on Brexit the London Review of Books has published since that fateful June day in the summer of 2016, so I was a little surprised to see yet another in the last issue (‘Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem’, vol. 40, no. 2, January 2018). But this one, at least, contained the first mention that I have read in your pages of that other incident in the history of the UK that occurred a year later, but about which the LRB has remained steadfastly silent. Following our report into its causes and those responsible, I was interviewed last year about the Grenfell Tower fire by an LRB journalist, who promised me an article would be out in the new year. Brexit, no doubt, has gripped the attention of the LRB’s middle-class readership, who might imagine themselves immune to the causes and consequences of this fire, but there can be few events in the past year on which so many strands of British life converge: the housing crisis, the privatisation of our public land and assets, unaccountability in local and central government, deregulation, foreign investment in London property, the mass loss of social housing, and the estate regeneration programme in which they all meet. For those who think the Golden Age of pre-Brexit UK is something to be missed, Grenfell is a sharp reminder to the contrary, and the failure of the LRB to report on this disaster has become something of an elephant in your offices, which I’ll hope you’ll soon chase away. This may help you.’
To which I attached the link to the ASH report. In reply I received an e-mail from Paul Myerscough, one of the senior editors at the LRB:
‘Thanks for your note. I can’t promise that we will rein in our coverage of Brexit, but I can promise that we shall carry something on Grenfell – by, I imagine, the writer who interviewed you – sometime in the next few months, and that it will be a substantial piece of work.’
As the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire approached it became apparent that this would also be when the LRB broke its long silence. And sure enough, this Friday the expected feature-length article arrived, titled ‘The Tower’ and written by the novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan, who is listed on the contents page as an editor-at-large. At nearly 60,000 words it’s twice the length of the ASH report, and according to the Channel 4 journalist, Jon Snow, whom it paints in unflattering colours, O’Hagan had a team of researchers at his disposal, presumably including the two I spoke to. Neither my interview nor the ASH report is referenced in O’Hagan’s article, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has read the two texts, but he does make numerous references to the accusations levelled against Kensington and Chelsea council, which he dismisses as the ‘ingrained resentment’ of ‘agitators’ – and other, equally pejorative, descriptions of activists that wouldn’t look out of place in the Daily Mail. So I feel that, although O’Hagan has completely ignored all the evidence of the council’s responsibility for the fire that we compiled and discussed over the course of our report, the conclusions he reaches are very much directed at discrediting those we reached, and that we therefore have a case to answer. It isn’t hard to recognise an unflattering portrait of ASH among O’Hagan’s contemptuous description of what he calls the ‘battalion of “local experts” and “community leaders”, quite a few from other areas, keen to speak on behalf of the victims before appearing on the news to denounce the guilty parties.’
More than this, though, I’m genuinely surprised ‘The Tower’ has been published by the London Review of Books, which is itself something of an ivory tower of political correctness and middle-class consciousness, but is always assiduous in dotting the i’s in its well-mannered liberalism. O’Hagan’s article, by contrast, reads like something penned by Boris Johnson for the Telegraph. After writing the ASH report on Grenfell Tower I never wanted to return to it again; but this is such a hatchet job I feel I have to. Given the magnitude of what he’s writing about and the flippancy of his argument, it’s one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve read – written by a writer who, by his own admission, was looking to move on after the fallout from being Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s ghost writer, and was doubtless aware of the publicity he’s now getting from being controversial about this most contentious of events. But equally probably, his article is also a strong indication of where the public inquiry will lead in apportioning blame and exonerating guilt. I had thought that one of the reasons the LRB hadn’t written about the fire is that, strictly speaking, it’s a journal for book reviews. So this is my review – which I will be submitting to the LRB – of what I wouldn’t be surprised to learn will turn into Andrew O’Hagan’s best-selling novel The Tower: Rewriting Grenfell.