As we approach the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, media interest is brewing. Some are sensitive and considerate, others are circling vultures.
I get it. I was a journalist for 30 years and although I wrote on architecture, design and planning the temptation of being the first on a story is compelling.
But this story is different. It is about the most horrific and painful and avoidable atrocity. This wasn’t a one-off instant catastrophe, hideous as that would be. The fire blazed for nearly 20 hours while people were trapped, witnessed by family, friends and neighbours.
We watched helplessly. Some people were on the phone to family members or friends as they panicked and died. Some saw people they knew screaming at windows. There were flames, smoke – and sounds. Many of us would like to forget these memories, but will relive them forever.
It’s bad enough for witnesses – for survivors who escaped the fire and for bereaved families, it’s worse.
So when I have said publicly, often regarding the post-Grenfell failure of the Council to care for people: that “x has happened to y”, and the media start chasing me for names, it makes me angry.
There are rare times when survivors are so frustrated with their situation that they demand exposure. That’s different. That’s within their control. Then I help.
But what usually happens is that the media have a ‘vision’ of their story, then they go out to find people who can play the roles they have already visualised. So it’s a casting exercise.
Recently I was asked to find someone to speak at an event. They wanted someone who had been bereaved. Someone articulate. A woman.
I almost said: “Do you want someone who will cry a bit?” Because, you know, sometimes that is what they want. I was unable to help.
We have a wounded community. There have been suicides – I know of five, some say double that. I have PTSD myself, but despite flashbacks when I see or recall certain moments, I can function. Many cannot. There are some who frankly I can’t imagine how they get through a single day.
My message to the media: please, write stories which do NOT depend on vulnerable people revealing their hurt to the cruel world, where they could be hounded and demonised as has happened to many before them.
Don’t ask me their name.
They must have all gone on the same course, because several times I’ve heard government ministers and RBKC senior councillors using the precise same phrase: “I prefer to listen to the quiet voices.”
If so, your empathy training was a waste of money.
I quite understand wanting to give a platform to those less articulate souls, but the way it is presented they clearly have had enough of people challenging them – passionately and often – about the frustrations they are facing, which the ‘listeners’ have the power to resolve but have chosen not to. They want them to shut up.
I’ve heard this expressed in various ways. In one public meeting, an angry survivor was literally told to “shut up”. Another time, a man who was traumatised and upset was called “volatile”. A housing association director, who attended a meeting to explain their failures, was congratulated by a senior councillor for entering “the lions’ den”. Then a senior Labour Councillor expressing frustration was told that the Tories might be more receptive if he “toned it down”.
People who have been spectacularly failed by the system, traumatised, re-traumatised, distressed, expressing righteous anger at the abject failure of those in power, are treated by people who should know better, and who should care more, as feral hordes.
This is snobbery, at times, in my opinion, tainted with racism.
If you want a vicar’s tea party, become a vicar.
Often community members are approached and asked to be put in touch with a “truly representative group”. There are dozens of groups with ‘Grenfell’ in their name. Most of them are truly representative.
They may represent the needs of young children for art therapy, the needs of teenagers for positive activity, mental health groups, singing groups, groups campaigning for justice for bereaved families, for a ban on dangerous combustible materials, for safe housing, for more housing. Then there are community groups with centres, some open to the public, some not, some government-funded, council-funded, charity-funded, self-funded, or those who refuse to take funding as they feel it might compromise them.
For those who need funding, they then need to formalise their organisation, and some chose to brand themselves. Some get it right, some maybe go too far. It is a perverse incentive. Just how desperate must your clientele be to attract funding?
This is a minefield for commentators as well as for journalists. Who can you believe? Who can you trust?
Are there 19 homeless families as some insist, or is it really 128? Whose statistics are real? Whose perspective are you taking as gospel?
There are questions, some with easy answers that are being ignored, and there are difficult solutions that will cost money. Two years on, RBKC Council and the government have failed spectacularly.
My neighbourhood is bereaved. Some are doing better than others, and no doubt some are fed up with the attention, or they believe the government and council spin.
This entirely avoidable atrocity two years ago opened a huge brewing debate about how government and local councils view social tenants, and social housing. It opened this debate with a howl of horror and of grief.
Our communities here are heartily sick of being approached by outsiders wanting a quick in-and-out with a “True Voice”. There is no “One True Voice”. There are many voices. Let the communities speak for themselves. Give them your platform. Listen.
Come to the Silent Walk on 14 June, if you wish. Come with a lack of judgment and with respect. It leaves at 7pm from the Methodist Church on Lancaster Road. Wear something green, don’t speak, listen.