Some critical commentary on "The Tower", Andrew O'Hagan's essay on the Grenfell disaster.
The London Review of Books generally has a good reputation for putting out consistently thought-provoking and well-written long-form pieces, often among the best stuff you’re likely to read anywhere near the mainstream British press at the moment. Which makes it especially odd that they seem to have decided to stake that reputation on a deeply questionable piece about Grenfell by Andrew O’Hagan, allowing the article to take up effectively an entire issue.
"Below is the complaint about Andrew O'Hagan's article that I have attempted to send to IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation). Unfortunately it looks as though the LRB are not regulated by IPSO (not in their drop down menu), I have emailed them anyway, and will also be sending it directly to the London Review of Books. I would urge everyone to put their own complaint together (and I will share any feedback I get - please let me know where else if anywhere I could send this?!)
I wish to complain about the article ”The Tower” and the author (Andrew O’Hagan), published in the London Review of Books”, for a number of reasons, based on the IPSO Editors Code of Practice, regarding the content of the article itself; a (video) image that was used without consent sought for it to be used in this way; about the information given by the author regarding their intentions for this piece, and the author’s failure to be sensitive when dealing with a case involving grief or shock.
The article in question is littered with inaccuracies, including even spelling mistakes of people’s names, although these pale in comparison to the level of inaccuracy in recounting events. I hope that others will respond with their complaints, as I cannot comment on their behalf. I shall only be commenting here on my own small contribution to the article and my own feelings regarding this.
I live in the community local to Grenfell Tower, and personally knew a number of people who died in the fire. I am a teacher, and some of them were children I taught. We are a community saturated with grief and trauma, many of us nowhere near something that could be seen as recovery. Andrew O’Hagan’s article contains much that could be seen as damaging to the credibility of our community, at a time it is essential our voices are heard, through the public enquiry which has just started. The content is also highly distressing reading for people who are directly affected, and for some of them offensive, due to the inaccuracies it contains.
I was approached by a researcher on Andrew O’Hagan’s behalf, around October 2017, who talked to me about the intentions of the author with regards to a book he was writing. I agreed to an interview, which was recorded with my understanding that this was for the purpose of transcripts only. I also met with Mr O’Hagan, who gave me various assurances, the most important being that the book was going to be about the lives of the people who died in the Tower, not about their deaths. It was to be a sensitive and respectful tribute, exploring what life was like in the Tower and the local area prior to the fire. I was told that there might be some commentary on the background of social injustice in the area, and problems with housing. I was assured that the author and his team were attempting to contact families and friends of people who lived and died in the tower, and that people were not being unnecessarily pressured, but that the author wanted to ensure that everyone who might want to contribute had been offered the opportunity. I was told that if people did not want to contribute their wishes would be respected. I was assured that truth and accuracy were of the utmost priority. I felt reassured by the fact that at least two people who live locally were on the author’s team.
I was sent a message by the author, via a text message from one of his researchers. This included references to some of his earlier works, and reviews, ending with these words:
“My Wikipedia entry, though not written by me, is pretty accurate in summing up my attempt to get at the truth of British society. My career has given me a megaphone, and I want to make sure I can speak into it of the right subjects and that I channel the true voices. The right wing press hate me and I can’t sell myself any better than that. I know it must be odd to meet a stranger, a well-known writer, to turn up and say he wants to get it all down right. But I do and I will. And I’m asking the community to help me as only they can, to defy years of prejudice and censorship and corruption in local and national government, and let me tell the truth of Grenfell going back years.”
I was also assured verbally that before the book came out, relatives of the deceased who had contributed would be approached to ensure they were happy with the content. I have no idea if this has happened in the case of this article, and I did not know there would be a preceding article in the London Review of Books.
I think it is important to note that I was not consulted by the researchers or author on my own experience of being a resident of Kensington and Chelsea all my life, or my experiences or opinions with regards to the local council. Yet I see the author spent a significant amount of time with Rock Feilding-Mellen’s family and other council figures. If the researchers were collecting information from bereaved local people only with regards to the lives of the people lost, and not asking them directly about their experiences of the council, then speaking in detail with figures in local government, then the account cannot be a balanced perspective, as the information on the issues of local government have only been explored on one side. And that is the side the author appears to strongly favour.
Towards the end of the first chapter of the article (I only have access to the online version so cannot give page numbers) there is a video of me speaking, with the caption “Melanie Coles describes Fethia Hassan’s last day.” I did not give my consent for the video to be posted publicly. I was assured that the purpose of recording me was solely for the purpose of making transcripts, so that the interviewer did not have to make notes as we spoke. The act of posting this video is dishonest. I feel I was not just misled, but lied to. I do not want this video of me posted online so publicly, and I want it removed immediately.
In a section of the text in the article, in the first chapter, the day before the fire started is described. There is a reference to Fethia’s teacher (myself) recounting a memory of that day and Fethia being upset about losing a white flower from her shoe. Apart from this being a simplistic summary of my account, the article states: “It would be there the next day. ‘Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things, but it will all be fine’, her teacher said to herself as she closed her classroom for the day and made her way home.”
I do not know how much poetic licence is “allowed” in an account like this, but to me, if you put something in quotation marks, this implies that is what the person actually said, or at least said that they thought (as I apparently said this to myself). I did not say “Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things”, nor did I say that I thought it. I do not think I have ever used the term “churned up” about anything. It seems like a minor thing, but if a small detail like this is fictionalised, how can we the readers (especially the wider public) feel sure that other, more significant apparent quotes by the people referred to, are not also fictionalised. And many of these quotes may be far from trivial details (there is a criminal investigation and public enquiry going on). This author is being irresponsible. Also, the effect created when quotes are used (I think) gives a powerful impression of having an insight into that persons character. So it needs to be accurate.
In addition, a little earlier in the article it is stated “…Rania at the Maxilla Children’s Centre, a nursery their children attended. Melanie Coles, one of the workers there, remembers…” This is another inaccuracy. Maxilla Children’s Centre, which I did work at, closed years ago. Fethia never attended there. She attended Golborne and Maxilla Children’s Centre, where I taught her at the time of her death. This may seem unimportant, but someone aware of local history, background and politics should be very aware of the significance of the difference between Maxilla, and Golborne and Maxilla. Either research has not been thorough enough, or the author has been careless, because any local resident would immediately notice and recognise the significance of this flaw.
Is this piece of writing to be perceived as fictional or factual? Of course it must be factual, these are real events, and highly sensitive ones, emotions are still raw, people are still traumatised, this has had a massive impact on our lives. I think that the fictionalisation of words, and events, is highly morally questionable, especially given the timing of the piece. If a small detail is questionable, what else in here can be relied upon? And yet the whole article works towards giving itself an air of credibility which it cannot deserve.
Mr O’Hagan has reached various conclusions, interpretations based on his “research”, which I feel are presented as factual when they are opinions. I personally do not agree with his conclusions. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it must be presented as opinion, not as authoritative when it is not. I originally consented to my words being used by Andrew O’Hagan based on a very different premise, he stated his intentions to me and he has clearly been dishonest. I want my contribution to his work withdrawn, and I want the video of me taken offline. I do not want my name associated with his work, now or in future, unless this is in relation to my objection to it.
I would like an apology from the author, for myself and more importantly for the Grenfell community, and a statement from him explaining his actions to the people who feel he has let them down.
I would be happy for any of my comments here to be published, although I would require my consent being sought beforehand, with the assurance that my comments will not be presented out of context.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t had any direct contact with the author of those comments, but am reproducing them without any alteration, and following the suggestion of Noha Maher, who writes “Please read below and share widely.”)
The video itself was taken down, and the LRB has now made several changes to the online version to remove some of the harmful and untrue claims that were made in the original piece, but a full apology has not yet been forthcoming; instead, one of O'Hagan's researchers, Lindsey Milligan, left an astonishingly contemptuous response, describing Coles' complaint as variously wrong, libellous, ludicrous, nonsense, "all in your head", and slanderous. Charmingly, she also tells Coles that "I don’t think you understood the bigger picture" - aren't those people interviewed for the piece, those with direct connections to the dead, so lucky that they have the likes of O'Hagan and Milligan around to explain the big picture for them? This sneer becomes truly surreal when we consider that Milligan lists "the behaviour of the media" as part of the bigger picture that Coles apparently doesn't understand. Milligan's response also contains another absurd moment when she tells Coles that "Freedom of speech allows people to interpret events and evidence as they see fit" - directly in between calling Coles' own interpretation of the evidence libellous, slanderous, and making a threatening reference to the LRB's lawyers!
Jon Snow has also pointed out that, in contrast to the article’s claim that Grenfell Action Group campaigner Edward “Daffarn… did half-hour interviews with Jon Snow on Channel Four News, unchallenged”1 , Daffarn’s first ever full-length TV interview was a few weeks ago, on 21st May 2018. On the face of it, this would appear to be a rather glaring error, and one that again severely undermines the credibility of the entire article.
A few further comments on the general tone of the article:
Perhaps the point where O'Hagan's perspective becomes most glaringly unbalanced is his complaint that housing activists were solely focused on those responsible for the disaster, and that “we may ask why it is always open season on the council, which has an actual record of helping people, as opposed to alleged criminals who may have a record of helping themselves? ...Not one activist I met ever wanted to speak about fraudsters in the community”.2 While everyone can agree that it’s unpleasant and sordid to exploit this kind of tragedy for personal gain, and that the actions of fraudsters may be harmful by diverting funds from those who are most in need, it would be very hard to argue that anyone has actually suffered physical harm as a result of their actions, in stark contrast to the decisions made by those responsible for the cladding of the tower.
With this point in mind, O’Hagan’s supposedly insightful question can equally well be rephrased as “we may ask why it always open season on those whose actions contributed to 72 preventable deaths, as opposed to those who never really caused harm to anybody?” a question that doesn’t quite have the finger-prodding force that O’Hagan clearly intends it to have.
On a stylistic note, it’s also interesting to note the sheer density of weasel words packed into a single sentence – O’Hagan clearly intends to suggest the simpler and more powerful phrase “criminals who have a record of helping themselves”, but he, or his editor assuming he has one, is aware that the evidence won’t quite support it, so is forced to alter it to the virtually meaningless “alleged criminals who may have a record”. Of course, Kensington and Chelsea council could equally well be described as “alleged heartless tory scum who may have a record of not caring about the poor”, because the function of “alleged” and “who may”, especially in such close proximity, is to allow the writer to say pretty much anything about anyone.
In a section that’s presumably intended to make the reader feel sympathetic for Kensington and Chelsea council’s plight, he writes that “Kensington and Chelsea, which has a small stock of social housing relative to most London boroughs, and tiny resources in public relations, was left for those first crucial days to cope on its own”.3 Certainly, if the council had a larger stock of social housing, they would probably have had an easier time rehousing the Grenfell tenants; but rather than presenting this as just a constraint that they had to suffer, a sharper and more critical writer might question why it was that the council had such a small stock, and whether that might be the result of previous decisions made by that same council.
O’Hagan generally writes about the council leaders in a tone of polite deference, at one point saying that “self-sustaining decency was a commodity in short supply” to explain how impressed he was by Nicholas Paget-Brown.4 It’s hard to know what to make of this claim, since “self-sustaining decency” would seem to be a fair characterisation of the very extensive community-organised relief efforts, so on the face of it there doesn’t seem to be much justification for presenting the council leader as being a rare oasis of decency, in contrast to his surroundings.
There’s a notable contrast between O’Hagan’s politeness about the council and the way he sneers at others – for instance, taking aim at Stormzy, he writes: “‘Yo, Theresa May,’ Stormzy sang at the Brits, keen to embody some real feels for the kids, ‘where’s the money for Grenfell?’ The words got a big cheer and an even bigger cheer all over the internet, but there wasn’t, in fact, a single pertinent syllable in them. It was just another rich pop star taking advantage of people’s pain to sound relevant. According to a clear breakdown provided by the Charity Commission, of the £24,993,386 raised in public donations – from newspaper appeals, the Red Cross, the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation, as well as dozens of smaller charities – £23,726,876 of it had been distributed directly to survivors of the fire and victims’ next of kin by 25 April this year.”5
Except that the money he mentions came from public donations, not from the government. Pointing out that people other than the government had given money to help with the disaster does not in itself negate the criticism that the government itself hadn’t done enough, so on the face of the evidence presented, Stormzy’s question is an entirely fair one.
O’Hagan repeatedly mentions that Kensington and Chelsea council was left to cope with the aftermath of the disaster without adequate support from central government, a point that is presumably fair when he makes it, but cynical grandstanding if Stormzy says more or less the same thing. Elsewhere in the article, he quotes a senior housing officer as saying that “the government got itself into such a situation that the government itself had to find a two million pound property for the family. They live there now. And of course when other families heard the story they were like, “Where’s my two million pound house?” And you can’t blame them.”6 As London is also a city where huge numbers of homes are bought and sold every day, and the government was able to find a new house for one family, it presumably would actually be possible to buy new homes for all the survivors of the disaster, if enough money was present. Perhaps O’Hagan is right to say that a single council couldn’t be expected to take on such a task, but surely central government could, if sufficient funds were directed to it. So, Stormzy’s “Yo, Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” is actually a far more pertinent question than O’Hagan gives it credit for.
Throughout the piece, O’Hagan displays a total inability or unwillingness to distinguish between different levels of the, or any, council. One particularly glaring example is during his glowing profile of Rock Feilding-Mellen, when he cites someone who is described as “someone in a London Labour council who has worked with [Feilding-Mellen]” and then “[m]y Labour contact” a few sentences later.7 If this person is actually a Labour councillor, then calling them a “Labour contact” would make sense, but then “someone in a London Labour council” would be a very odd bit of phrasing; but if we take the first description as it stands, then calling someone who just works for the council, and may not have any actual connection with the party itself, a "Labour contact" seems strange. Certainly, there must be a great number of workers employed by Conservative-run local authorities who would be quite surprised to be called a “Conservative contact” or anything similar.
Towards the end of the article, O’Hagan accuses activists like the Grenfell Action Group of “throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding”.8 I hadn’t encountered this formulation before, and googling it most of the results seem to be people complaining about O’Hagan’s use of it, including one person offering the wise observation that “You can tell so much from the metaphors someone thinks are clever”. Since it’s clearly not a phrase in general use, O’Hagan would appear to have taken the existing phrase “like confetti at a wedding” and added his own spin to it in an attempt to associate Grenfell Action Group with the stigma surrounding sex work. The chutzpah on display here is remarkable, as you would think that someone who makes their living by writing inaccurate, sensationalist articles about major disasters might be less judgemental about how other people pay their bills.
O’Hagan repeatedly attempts to portray all criticism of the council as coming from “activists” who avoid engaging with the facts and prefer to push a simplistic narrative where the disaster is solely due to the individual faults of Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, writing “activists… engaged on a prolonged mission to simplify, speak of the council as if it were the only organisation involved”9 and “[t]hey had loud voices and good causes, but what they didn’t have was facts”.10
But an examination of the massive Architects for Social Housing report shows that, rather than fact-free rants focusing solely on the council, these “activists” managed to produce a document that contains a huge amount of factual information about the TMO, the various contractors, and the overall regulatory framework. It seems implausible that O’Hagan could have researched this article without ever learning that the ASH report exists, but if he is aware of its existence, and deliberately chose to avoid engaging with it, while complaining about the “activists… engaged on a prolonged mission to simplify” and unable to back their accusations up with facts, then it’s hard to see that as being anything other than intentionally dishonest.
Another commentator wrote:
“I found myself really irritated by his bit about one of the women who died going to a local sewing group where people fondly remembered her 'laughing and dropping a stitch' because I know no one who sews would say that, it's not something you do when you're sewing. It is something you do when you're knitting. So either he made up something he thought would sound right, or he didn't bother to get the details of her actual craft right, even though I think he's congratulating himself on putting together a 'real picture' of the people who lived in the Tower, as if they mattered, only they don't matter enough to need real accuracy…
The contempt he shows for deeply traumatised people not grasping that the social workers etc are 'from the council' is breathtaking; it's disgusting that he shares council workers' stories about (thinly anonymised) greedy tenants wanting fancy prams and big houses without comment, I find it astonishing that he lauds those council workers' for their bravery and commitment in working overtime and actually going and talking to the tenants after the fire, and doing all the things for them (ie their FUCKING JOB FOR WHICH THEY ARE BEING PAID) when he's actively dismissive about the firefighters who actually had to go into a burning building without adequate equipment or backup.”11
It’s a shame the article as a whole is so flawed, because there’s the germ of an important and worthwhile argument being made there. The central observation, that Kensington and Chelsea Conservative councillors with posh names make convenient scapegoats for faults that are actually endemic to the cross-party consensus in both local and national government over the last few decades, is a useful one, but sadly the article more or less discredits itself with its shoddy handling of evidence and open partisanship for the council and against their critics. If you think you may only have time to read one lengthy, indepth piece of writing about the Grenfell disaster, then I’d recommend that you skip O’Hagan and start off with the brilliant, rigorous Architects for Social Housing report; and if there are any LRB editors reading this, then please just give the job to James Meek next time you have to commission a serious investigation.
For readers based in London, Justice4Grenfell and the Fire Brigades Union are asking people to join a Justice For Grenfell solidarity march assembling outside Downing Street at 12 noon on Saturday 16th June.
- 1From Section III, p.20 in the printed edition
- 2From Section IV, p. 28 in the printed edition.
- 3From Section IV, p. 26 in the printed edition.
- 4From Section IV, p. 25 in the printed edition.
- 5From Section IV, p. 29 in the printed edition.
- 6From Section IV, p. 26 in the printed edition.
- 7From Section V, p. 30 in the printed edition
- 8From Section VII, p. 39 in the printed edition.
- 9From Section V, p. 30 in the printed edition
- 10From Section VII, p. 39 in the printed edition.
- 11From the author's personal correspondence.