Grenfell tragedy exposes UK media's shortfall

It has been 10 days now since the Grenfell tower block in London was consumed by flames.

The fire has had serious repercussions for Theresa May’s government, which was barely clinging to power after very close election and now has its housing and social policy under serious scrutiny, as the blame game unfolds.

Journalists arriving at the scene got an earful from residents who say the media ignored them when they tried to raise their safety concerns, until the fire – the tragedy – suddenly made them newsworthy.

Those reports of unheeded safety warnings, that cosmetic renovation that used a flammable material, because it was a little cheaper, in one of the richest areas in Europe, have turned the charred remains of Grenfell Tower into a symbol of entrenched inequality; Exhibit A in the case against a government accused of failing to take care of its most vulnerable.

Are the mainstream news media in the UK any better at dealing with marginalised communities than governments are? On stories where complex issues – like housing, inequality, austerity, race and class, intersect – the answer would appear to be: no.

“What’s shocking about it is about those who are often invisible, poor black and brown people who are the lifeblood of London, the taxi drivers, cleaners, caterers are made powerfully visible through this terrible tragedy,” says Akwugo Emejulu, sociology professor of the University of Warwick.

“It’s a spectacle in the worst possible sense.

“Like most news stories, this one was picture-driven. And once the flames had died out, there was Prime Minister Theresa May, at a photo opportunity with firefighters, looking concerned.”

She chose not to meet any residents – victims – until the next day, and when she did, it was beyond the glare of the cameras, and May left the building by the side door, was chased and called a coward.

The prime minister could have feared the viral moment, the kind of confrontation over issues like neglect, not caring about the poor – that journalists covering the story walked right into.

“The media has neglected a lot of these stories and that’s why we saw this anger coming from certain people towards journalists,” explains Maya Goodfellow, an independent writer and researcher.

“Because not only have these issues not been covered, these people haven’t had the platform to be heard. So only now when this huge tragedy has befallen them, do they then get the space to actually talk about what’s happened to them. And that should have happened before when we already knew this was an issue.”

This is not the first news story to receive scant coverage during the pre-disaster phase – where the media have failed to find repeated warnings of imminent danger as compelling as when disaster actually strikes and lives are lost.

And as empathetic as most of the British news media were in the aftermath – putting tough questions to the politicians – that empathy seemed to subside when frustrated residents stormed into the local municipality’s offices.

And when the most notorious of Britain’s rightwing tabloids looked for someone to blame, they looked past governments, the regulatory issues and all those unheeded warnings – to focus on something – and someone – else. The other.

“The Sun and the Daily Mail have a huge history of very racist front pages, whipping up racial hatred,” says Dawn Foster, contributing housing editor for The Guardian.

“So I wasn’t surprised to see that they had decided to focus, not on the fire safety problems but instead on one person, one person who had a fire in his home. So I don’t think that blaming this man did anything other than scapegoat him to serve the Daily Mail and the Sun’s conservative viewpoint.”

Akwugo Emejulu, Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick
Dawn Foster, contributing housing editor, The Guardian
Anna Minton, author, Big Capital: Who Is London For?
Maya Goodfellow, independent writer and researcher

Source: Al Jazeera