The Tower

You won’t find the following letter in the latest issue of the LRB, so I’m putting it up here instead.

Campaigning discourse gains much of its force through devices like exaggeration, transposition and reversal – rhetorical techniques which in turn gain their force from their users’ (paradoxical) insistence that they are speaking the plain, unvarnished truth. We generally understand this without too much effort; when we are told that “meat is murder”, or that “abortion is murder”, we do not suppose that the protester advancing that proposition would be willing to bring a murder charge against an abortionist or an abattoir worker. Rather, we recognise that the term ‘murder’ is being used as a label for behaviours which – the protester believes – would in an ideal world be seen as tantamount to murder, with a view to propagating that belief.

This is not a new discovery of mine. So I was surprised to find Andrew O’Hagan deliberating over whether Nick Paget-Brown and his deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen were, genuinely and literally, guilty of homicide, and treating the negative answer to that question as a significant finding. Taking the Grenfell campaigners at their word, and Nick and Rock at theirs, may seem even-handed, but it actually confronts two radically different discourses. One is polemical, inferring a pattern from public information and drawing conclusions which (necessarily) go beyond it and into speculation; the other is confessional, based on the introspection of private beliefs and motives for action. Information gained in the confessional mode may make the polemics look silly and mean-spirited, but it doesn’t disqualify them: one may be actuated by the highest of motives and still be involved in schemes that destroy lives. (Again, not a new discovery.)

While O’Hagan acknowledges that “nice people can do terrible things”, at a more fundamental level he seems to work on the basis that the information he’s collecting is, simply, either correct or not – truth or bunk. This naturally inclines him to discount the “colourful and provocative” polemics and warm to the dedication and “self-sustaining decency” of Feilding-Mellen and Paget-Brown. But polemic calls for decoding, not debunking. The question of whether meat is in fact murder can be settled in two minutes (it’s not); whether there is a message behind that slogan that deserves taking seriously, and what the implications of taking it seriously would be, could occupy you for years. Information in the confessional mode, on the other hand, carries an undeniable emotional truth – but this can sit quite happily alongside self-serving and unreliable interpretations of matters of fact, giving them an unearned aura of ‘truthiness’.

Unfortunately O’Hagan’s hermeneutic suspicion is reserved almost exclusively for the Grenfell campaigners – whose “damning and suggestive” arguments, combining “robust speculation” with a “fundamental assumption of guilt”, he apparently saw through so thoroughly that there was nothing left for him to tell us about. When it comes to Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, on the other hand, O’Hagan seems to take the view that they’re pretty straight guys – OK, they’re Tories, but nobody’s perfect – so there’s no call to go around trying to trip them up with trick questions.

To call this a missed opportunity would be an understatement; it forecloses precisely the kind of investigation and analysis that this story needed. Here’s one small example of the kind of connection O’Hagan declined to make, drawn from the final text of The Tower:

[Feilding-Mellen:] “A lot of those Brutalist postwar buildings are not fit for purpose, and our tenants were always telling us that. So I wanted either to improve them or build them again, with guaranteed housing for existing tenants, and with more affordable homes on the same sites.”

[in Kensington and Chelsea] 78 per cent of affordable housing delivered between 2012 and 2015 was social housing, with hardly any ‘affordable rent’ homes delivered at all. … This apparent neglect of housing aimed at those on middle incomes, in favour of those most in need … is a historic problem that Feilding-Mellen was particularly anxious to redress

On Wednesday, 14 June … Jon Snow interviewed Paget-Brown. ‘Can you guarantee that the poorer people who are moved out of here’ – Snow asked, pointing to the tower – ‘will not be replaced by rich people being built fancy new flats to replace it?’
‘Jon, I …’
‘Can you guarantee it?’
‘I really think that’s just an awful allegation and I’m not going to justify it with a response.’

O’Hagan presents this interview as a textbook case of the degradation of journalism, Snow speaking from “a rush of personal conviction” and an “accuser’s zeal” instead of attending to “the essential dynamics of professional doubt”. But, allowances made for Snow’s – polemical – language, surely the assurance he demanded is precisely what Feilding-Mellen failed to give. “Affordable rent” is a term of art for rents pegged to 80% of the local average; the London-wide average “affordable rent”, as of 2015, was £167/week (or £720/month). (For comparison, the median income in Kensington and Chelsea is £27,500, for monthly take-home pay of around £1300.) Feilding-Mellen’s vision for towers like Grenfell (or their replacements) was, precisely, “affordable homes” for “those on middle incomes”, with existing tenants guaranteed “housing” but not guaranteed the housing that they had had before. Would this connection not have been worth drawing out? Might it not have thrown light on the broader context of the tragedy? At the very least, O’Hagan could have asked Feilding-Mellen to put the suspicion to rest, for the benefit of any readers who had nasty suspicious minds.

O’Hagan seems determined to write a story without heroes and villains – or, failing that, one in which we are all (in a very real sense) the villain.

But what if the cause of those deaths wasn’t a few conveniently posh people, but our whole culture and everybody in it, the culture that benefited some but not others, and supported cuts and deregulation everywhere? Not so comfortable now?

Setting aside the bizarre and rather offensive idea that demanding justice for 72 avoidable deaths is a “comfortable” position, what on earth is this “whole culture and everybody in it”? If it means anything, this sentence seems to mean that we have all “supported cuts and deregulation everywhere”; we are scapegoating Kensington and Chelsea because of our own bad conscience – and perhaps out of sheer political opportunism:

The same cladding is on hundreds of buildings in the UK, and the leaders of those councils, Labour as well as Tory, are presumably not being accused of detesting the poor for being in power when their managers installed it.

Yes, a disaster like Grenfell could have happened in any one of a number of local authority areas, some of them with Labour councils; and yes, those councils are responsible for acceding in the culture of “cuts and deregulation everywhere”, and would have borne the blame for the disaster if it had happened on their patch. That, surely, is how accountability works, even in a “whole culture” that sweeps up the entire country in a mania for deregulation. Not that, in point of fact, it ever did. I stopped voting Labour in 1995, precisely because it had become clear that no opposition to “cuts and deregulation” – or to the workings of the free market generally – was to be expected from that quarter; I returned to the party, and became a member, twenty years later, with a view to helping the party return to its old position. I only mention this because I know how typical my experience is. Millions of people never did support cuts and deregulation; millions still don’t. If we’re apportioning guilt, the larger shares must go to those who did support the cuts; those who voted for them; those national politicians who imposed them on the country; and those local politicians who implemented them, however limited their information and however sincerely-felt their good intentions.

I’m not surprised they didn’t publish it – it’s long, and who am I? I’ve got no connection with the case or the area. I thought it was worth writing, though, if only to articulate to myself just what a disappointing piece of work The Tower is. It read like a ‘character’ journalist claiming to be an investigative reporter, falling flat on his face and carrying on as if nothing had happened – less Duncan Campbell than Jon Ronson, and a young Jon Ronson at that. (Andrew O’Hagan is a better writer, and clearly did a lot more work on the story, than that characterisation would suggest. However, O’Hagan seems to have abandoned or pre-emptively censored most of the promising lines of investigation, greatly to the detriment of the final piece.)

The letter in the current issue from Anna Minton goes over neighbouring ground and is well worth reading.

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2 Comments

  1. Guano
    Posted 9 July 2018 at 19:59 | Permalink | Reply

    Your last two sentences are the key argument, and you should probably have written a letter with just those points (along with, perhaps, a note about scribblers who promoted the idea that deregulation was the only game in town).

    • Phil
      Posted 9 July 2018 at 22:56 | Permalink | Reply

      Perhaps. They probably still wouldn’t have printed it!

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