Many journalists don’t have a clue how the communities they cover live their day-to-day lives, writes Darren McGarvey.
“It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” This was the ominous prediction, made by the Grenfell Action Group, in November 2016.
By June the following year, they were proven right. Mainstream media scrambled to the West London borough, attempting to make sense of the tragedy in which 71 people perished and hundreds were left displaced or homeless. But many journalists, usually at ease with covering fast-moving stories, found themselves anxious and disorientated. The rage was palpable, and as journos attempted to frame the events, often clumsily, the real story was going on behind them: Grenfell stood on the cliff-edge of civil unrest, as the pampered leaders of the KCTMO retreated to their Forbidden City, petrified of the local people beating down their door for answers. And many of these locals were not interested in talking to media, because for them, media was part of the problem.
Veteran journalist and Channel Four news anchor Jon Snow used his MacTaggart Lecture, in November that year, to warn his profession of a worrying disconnect between the people living in such communities and the people reporting on them. Snow said media was “comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite” and that the fire proved this lack of connection was “dangerous”.
The extent to which the voices of the Grenfell community had been routinely ignored played a key role in the sequence of decisions that led to the fire, not least the choice, made in the name of cost-saving, of flammable cladding and insulation materials that encouraged the fire’s rapid, deadly spread through the building.
Many online, were quick to warn against “politicising” the fire and dismissed, with alarming alacrity, local people’s “paranoid” assertions that the cladding was fitted to give the neighbouring community something less hideous to look at.
The notion that gentrification was a peripheral factor was laughed off, by the same people who disputed that Grenfell was a deprived community – because people who own Ikea furniture can’t be poor or socially excluded. A quick glance at the 2014 planning application, confirms the “paranoid” locals were, again, correct: “The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area”, being one sentence that really leaps off the page.
Yet, it took trained, professional journalists months to uncover basic truths about the context of this tragedy. It took so long because they first had to get their heads around what life in such a community was like when that’s something they ought to have understood intimately.
Unfortunately, local politics is regarded by too many as unglamorous and low-stakes.
This belief, that local issues are inferior to the more pressing matters of superficial, stage-managed press conferences, celebrity break-ups and royal weddings, often begins when a journalist is being trained.
The first part of a journalism course, where students will be asked to attend laborious community council meetings and chase up quotes from people nobody has ever heard of, is something most people are glad to get out of the way.
This must change.
If you observe any experienced political commentator, musing about the trials and tribulations of a prime minister, for example, you’ll be treated to so much social political and historical context that it’ll make your brain hurt. A reporter, reflecting on the significance of a political decision or event, will be able to lay out, in a very detailed but clear and concise way, precisely what events preceded it, the political implications and even a prediction of what may occur as a result.
For journalists of this sort, it’s a matter of intuition because they are deeply immersed in the world on which they are reporting.
But if you parachute those same journalists into a community like Grenfell, they spend most of their time trying to conceal their anxiety and confusion; suddenly giving the appearance of rookies on their first beat, able to speak only in platitudes, while they desperately attempt to connect with what is going on and what it means.
After the fire, a window opened into Grenfell.
Countless articles and broadcasts attempted to capture what it was like to live in a tower block.
A tower block that dominated the skyline for more than 40 years yet remained invisible to most people in media. Having been ignored – and dismissed – for so long, now suddenly everybody was interested in what life in a community like this entailed.
But most people, despite their noble intentions, were just passing through on a short-lived expedition, where the indigenous population is observed from a safe distance for a time, before the window closes and everyone gradually forgets about it. Then we move quickly to the aftermath phase, where those very media institutions, which demonstrated such a cack-handed approach, begin to take charge of the evaluation process.
That’s when you hear organisations, attempting to atone for being so disconnected from the concerns of local people, asking “what could we have done differently?” or “how can we listen better?” Well, you do that by paying attention to a couple of basic things.
First, how many people, hailing from such communities, do you employ?
Secondly, how much time do your staff spend in communities when they are not in crisis? You bridge the gap between media and working class communities, by walking alongside people without an agenda. You build trust and mutual respect by seeing these communities as more than attitudes, behaviours and social problems, learning not only what matters to people, but also how they think and speak about such things.
You immerse yourself in a community, like you immerse yourself in parliament, making your values as a journalist visible, not to extract narrative or find a scoop, but because that is what gives your profession integrity.
What you will find is the real context in which our political leaders find themselves; a country where many people have stopped listening to politicians, and routinely shrug at the news.
Not because they aren’t intelligent enough to understand what is going on, but because they reason most journalists regard their lives as parochial and uninteresting. And once again, they are correct.