BUMPED BY REQUEST...
I subscribed to the London Review of Books for a year. I wanted something left-wing to balance my subscription to the right-wing Spectator. (Beat that for impartiality, BBC!). So it's pleasing that others are now finding the LRB worth a read, thanks to a long and fascinating piece there about the Grenfell Tower disaster by author and LRB editor-at-large Andrew O'Hagan.
It's one of those pieces that, if correct, should be used in university media departments to show how poor and irresponsible mainstream media reporting can be - for if what Andrew O'Hagan says is correct then the mainstream media, including the BBC, have failed us badly.
According to his account, the media immediately helped politicise the disaster and started the blame game, guiding the blame towards the wrong people - mainly the Council, its leaders and workers. They (Kensington and Chelsea Burough Council) come out of AO'H's account sounding like thoroughly decent, well-intentioned people who not only tried to do their best when the disaster struck but did plenty of good in the immediate aftermath - despite all the extra hurdles flung in their path. Nicholas Paget-Brown, the then-Council leader, in particular, comes across as having been treated abominably - though he's so decent that he would never say so himself.
Here's a brief extract:
That evening, not long after his office was trashed, Paget-Brown received a call at home from the prime minister. She told him she had just been to the Clement James Centre and was told the people there had had no communication from the council. ‘We know Clement James very well,’ he said. He thought it very odd. People inside her group who know of the call say that May was disgruntled by her reception, was floored by its contrast to the reception Jeremy Corbyn had received, and was determined to find the reason. ‘I’m hearing that people aren’t seeing the council,’ she told Paget-Brown. ‘How many families need housing tonight?’
‘At their own request, there’s one large family of seven still in the sports centre,’ Paget-Brown said. (This was the Jafari family.) May then said that a support group from the Department of Communities and Local Government would help locate accommodation for others who wanted it. Paget-Brown did not tell her that everyone else who wanted temporary accommodation already had it.
‘I had a list,’ one of the officers informed me, ‘of every hotel that people were in. All the families, with the flat number, everything. But on Radio 4 they reported that a family had allegedly been sent to Preston with £10. Absolute nonsense. I was swearing at the radio: “I’ve got the list here! There’s nobody further than Acton! Nobody had been sent outside West London! And we gave people a lot of money. The council had said straightaway: “Give people as much money as you can.”’
The BBC has given his article some coverage.
Yesterday Mr. O'Hagan was interviewed on the Today programme. Mishal Husain sounded if she was sticking to the script (in more than one sense) - and it certainly wasn't his script. (Her challenges sounded pre-prepared, wooden and ill-thought-out.)
And then, immediately after interviewing AO'H, she interviewed Peter Herbert, the founder of BMELawyers4Grenfell who dismissed Andrew O'Hagan's ten months of research and insisted there was "a race dynamic" to the tragedy.
The odd thing about Mishal's interview with Mr. Herbert is that she let him speak without interruption or even a single challenge. It was strikingly unbalanced interviewing.
Andrew O'Hagan also got a bit part in a BBC News website report yesterday - three short, single-sentence paragraphs in a 30-paragraph article. The bulk of the BBC report was given over to an opposing report - that from Muslim Aid, which is still blaming the Council. Quite why Muslim Aid get the headline treatment and the main part of the report and the LRB's extensive study gets three short paragraphs almost in passing is a telling question I think. And that Muslim Aid review was a lead story yesterday across the BBC as a whole.
Peter Herbert on Today said that Andrew O'Hagan's piece was a non-expert view. So surely is Muslim Aid's. Why make so much more of the latter than the former?
Is Andrew O'Hagan correct? Have the likes of the BBC misreported this from the start?
I'm not in a position to say, of course. I read his LRB piece and was wholly persuaded by it. It rang much truer for me that any number of partisan accounts or BBC/other media accounts - especially as it seemed disinterested. (Mr. O'Hagan is far from being a right-winger or a Tory and yet here he was exonerating a Tory council).
What do I know though? Hopefully many others - including at the BBC - will seriously take up Andrew O'Hagan's challenge and properly respond to his findings.
If such a important story as this - one that the BBC has focused on with unusual and prolonged intensity for nearly a year now - has been as badly reported as the London Review of Books suggests it has been then the UK media, especially the BBC, should hang its collective head in shame.