Monday 4 June 2018



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. 


  1. Islamist bomber kills children at a pop concert... the BBC response is all about "we won't let this divide us," "hope not hate," "this is not about blame," etc.

    Tragic fire in a council tower block that happens to be situated not too far from some well-heeled streets where well-off people live... the BBC response is, effectively, "hang the heartless Tories, they're murdering scum."

    The former is a deliberate mass murder carried out in the name of an ideology that is gradually permeating our culture and will continue to attempt such atrocities.

    The latter is a tragic accident which may well prove to have been due in part to criminal negligence, but nevertheless a tragedy which no-one sought and no-one wanted.

    The Manchester bomber was praised on social media by many Muslims.

    After Grenfell, there was only sorrow and shock even from those ghastly people who happen to have made a few bob in their lives and live in a nice house.

  2. The main misreporting by the BBC and the rest of the MSM has been in relation to the fire service. Of course for the BBC, the fire service, like nurses and doctors, are basically above criticism (unlike the Police who get it in the neck unless they are prepared to spout politically correct nonsense).

    It was for me (and O'Hagan) clear as day the Fire Service had completely failed the people of Grenfell Tower in terms of the decisions taken on the day and it must be said in leaving many of them to get down the stairs as best they could by themselves.

    K&C Council were useless in their post-event response.

    1. As you doubtless spotted, Andrew O'Hagan was particularly strong about the Fire Service's failings on 'Today' yesterday.

      I don't think he'd agree with you though about K&C Council's post-event response. There's a huge amount of detail in his piece geared towards proving that K&C Council mostly got the post-event response right and that they've been unjustly maligned. (I think that's actually the main burden of his piece). He clearly thinks that K&C Council did as well as they could given the circumstances. You and Andrew might have to agree to disagree about that!

    2. Andrew O'Hagan's painstakingly thorough appraisal of what happened to Grenfell Tower, (and the political fall-out afterwards), is easily the best overview presently available.

  3. Its fair to say that the BBC "has form" here. In the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in London, there was some scathing criticism of the London fire brigade and the London ambulance services response from the inquiry this was well reported by BBC London news but ignored by the BBC nationally. I suspect that NUJ members are un-officially instructed to black any bad news stories about Fire or Ambulance services by the respective unions the FBU and Unite.

  4. The reality is re the Fire Service that no firefighter died on the night but 80 residents did. Only some 5% of firefighters were deployed on the night. The London Fire Service - despite serving a city that has a huge number of high rise blocks - had virtually no equipment available for rescuing people from the higher floors and it appears that the amount of breathing apparatus might have been inadequate as well. It had also failed to raise any effective alarm about the inflammable cladding used on high rise blocks. It also failed to order an immediate evacuation of Grenfell once it was apparent flames were streaking up the side of the building. There had been a similar incident in Lewisham a couple of years earlier where people had died in similar circumstances so they cannot plead ignorance.

    1. I'm surprised that there wasn't any attempt made for a rooftop rescue. According to Andrew O'Hagan's report, the Fire Service had advised residents already on the staircases on their way to safety to return up the staircases to their flats and await rescue.

      Some of this group climbed to the top floor seeking fresher air and upon hearing helicopters above thought this was their best remaining option. Access to the roof was blocked by a locked door. The helicopters, alas, were those chartered by the press to obtain live dramatic footage of the tragedy. What a cruel turn of events that was. Strong leadership from the Fire Service might have helped at this stage.

    2. Another mystifying aspect of Andrew O'Hagan's report is that there appears to have been a 49 minute delay between the outbreak of the fire and the first call to the emergency services.

    3. If true, then one has to look at the resident status of the individual(s) concerned. Illegal migrants are notoriously loathe, for obvious reasons, to involve themselves with the authorities. I suspect though that this is one of those things that will be quietly passed over at the inquiry...we shall see though, since it could be relevant in why the fire spread so devastatingly from the original flat.

    4. This is an extract from Andrew O'Hagan's report The Tower:

      .... Near to 12.15 a.m., a fire began in the kitchen of Flat 16 on the fourth floor. The flat was rented by an Ethiopian cab driver called Behaulu Kebede, a father of one. Some immediate neighbours heard a bang, but the rest knew nothing until, about twenty minutes later, Mr Kebede appeared in the hall in his stockinged feet, saying there was a fire in his flat. He thought it had started at the back of his fridge. He called the police before going to the door of his next-door neighbour, Maryam Adam, who was three months pregnant. ‘It was exactly 12.50 a.m.,’ she said, ‘because I was sleeping and it woke me up.’ She looked at the clock as she made her way onto the landing and looked towards Kebede’s open door. She could see into his kitchen and she thought at the time that the fire wasn’t very big. There was no siren sounding but some of the other neighbours were woken up by knocks at their doors and they too came out. One of them noticed that Mr Kebede had packed a suitcase; it was standing in the hall, as if he was prepared to leave after raising the alarm. A call was made to North Kensington fire brigade at 12.54. Maryam Adam left the building immediately. She didn’t even pick up her phone, a fact that would trouble her later. ‘I had many friends in the building,’ she said....

      The question must be raised: Why wasn't a determined effort made by residents to put out the 'not very big fire' in the hour or so before help arrived and before the external cladding and insulation caught fire? Surely there were fire extinguishers, fire blankets or at least buckets of water available.

    5. Following on from MB's point above, could the reality be that to have saved the day and be acclaimed a hero might have brought a resident's name, and their status into the public domain - something to be avoided no matter how high the cost?

    6. It's odd. Duvets could have been soaked and thrown on the fire in an effort to damp down the flames.

  5. I started reading and read for quite a while but now I'm wondering just how many pages this article runs to. How long does one need to allow to read the whole thing?

  6. ... could the reality be that to have saved the day and be acclaimed a hero might have brought a resident's name, and their status into the public domain ... Grammar .... could the reality be that to have saved the day and be acclaimed a hero bring a resident's name, and their status into the public domain ....

  7. O'Hagan's damning words about the Fire Service's response:

    "A number of fire experts told me the response was weak. Everyone knows that cost-cutting is a problem but there was also a problem with the way the Grenfell response was managed. We don’t like to say these things, but events on 14 June show that, regardless of our affection for them, the professional fire services’ response to the fire at Grenfell Tower was anything but strong. The biggest weakness, all my sources agreed, was the slowness in telling residents to evacuate. Quite simply it caused nearly all of the...deaths."

  8. Could it, perhaps, be that fire chiefs, like chief constables, are now being chosen because they tick some P.C. box, rather than on merit/skill/know-how?

  9. When compared to the excellent Andrew O’Hagan 'The Tower' report, already the Official Inquiry seems to be skirting around some of the key timeline facts.

    The Inquiry has heard that the call came into the emergency services at 00.54 am, but not, so far as I can see, the time at which the fire actually started, which O’Hagan reports as 'Near to 12.15 a.m’.

    From 'The Tower' we learn that an impromptu meeting of residents was held on the fourth floor landing with the door to Flat 16 open watching the 'not very big fire' burn for some 40 minutes or more before a call to the emergency services was made.

    Lack of action at this stage was crucial to the resulting spread of fire. Surely, common sense would dictate that the residents should 'do something' - seek help quickly at the very least.

    1. See BBC coverage of the fire Inquiry:

      'Grenfell Tower: What happened'

      ..... Just before 01:00 on 14 June, fire broke out in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat at the 23 storey tower block in North Kensington, West London....

      The question is: Did the fire start 'Just before 01:00' as the BBC report implies, or did it start 'Near to 12.15 a.m’ as O'Hagan suggests? What is the purpose of a Public Inquiry when a basic question such as 'at what time did the fire start?' is not established beyond any doubt. Are we to believe that 'just before' could be extended for a period of 40 minutes or more?


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