Sympathy for the Council: Some comments on Andrew O'Hagan's Grenfell Tower article

Photo credit: (Yui Mok/PA)

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.

The most important, and the most damning, commentary on the article has come from Melanie Coles, one of the people who was interviewed for it, which is reproduced in full below:

"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.
Yours faithfully,
Melanie Coles"

(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.

  • 1. From Section III, p.20 in the printed edition
  • 2. From Section IV, p. 28 in the printed edition.
  • 3. From Section IV, p. 26 in the printed edition.
  • 4. From Section IV, p. 25 in the printed edition.
  • 5. From Section IV, p. 29 in the printed edition.
  • 6. From Section IV, p. 26 in the printed edition.
  • 7. From Section V, p. 30 in the printed edition
  • 8. From Section VII, p. 39 in the printed edition.
  • 9. From Section V, p. 30 in the printed edition
  • 10. From Section VII, p. 39 in the printed edition.
  • 11. From the author's personal correspondence.

Posted By

R Totale
Jun 4 2018 18:38

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  • 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.

    Melanie Coles

Attached files

Comments

Red Marriott
Jun 4 2018 20:38

One wonders what kind of agenda they pursue and what climate they seek to create by making such public statements as the public enquiry starts. Another journalist, Sarah Baxter (Sunday Times edItor) also criticised the firefighters; they’re replied to here by FBU; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/31/grenfell-firefighters-heroes-public-inquiry

Paget-Brown, favourably mentioned by O’Hagan above, was leader of the Council which had

Quote:
“in the 1990s ... delegated management of its council housing stock to KCTMO. Since then they have a legal obligation to monitor the TMO’s performance – [shortly before the fire] they recently gave it a glowing review, singling out the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and its health & safety aspects for praise ... http://libcom.org/news/monopoly-board-city-grenfell-tower-where-was-hca-government-housing-regulator-19062017

In his concern to defend the Council he apparently ignores that tenants had been complaining of safety and other management failures of their landlord for years. He wants to dismiss criticism of relevant politicians as just anti-Tory political prejudice - yet the Grenfell Action Group blog had predicted just such a disaster due to ongoing safety failings; it had also long reported how some senior Council leaders whom O’Hagan defends - including Paget-Brown - had apparently had their fingers in local real estate pies for years and were using their Council role to expand that involvement (see footnote 15 at link above).

article wrote:
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

This banality is true, but nevertheless it’s clear that the K&C councillors were enthusiastic enforcers of these policies (and anyone who wasn’t wouldn’t have climbed the greasy pole into their leadership roles); they weren’t obliged to hand over council housing stock to the TMO that so fatally mismanaged it, nor did they have to so badly monitor the TMO and ignore tenants’ safety warnings. As the article linked to above shows, the government housing regulator HCA also failed in this regard.

With not a sniff of any arrests so far, whether the former Councillors will face any legal charges is perhaps unlikely and the O'Hagan article is probably intended to make that less likely - so claims of "scapegoating" ring a bit hollow.

But some people have no shame; the latest issue of Private Eye reports;

Quote:
“Nick Paget-Brown, the former Tory leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC), who resigned last July after the Grenfell fire, was quick to reinvent himself as an expert on cost-cutting, touting his services to other councils.
Paget-Brown launched NPB Consulting last August, less than two months after he was forced to quit as council leader. His LinkedIn profile boasted that when it came to “financial planning in an age of austerity” Paget-Brown was the man to go to for advice. As stinginess on fire safety expenditure has been widely blamed for contributing to the Grenfell tragedy, this did not go down well.
Paget-Brown’s updated LinkedIn page now carries no reference to “financial planning”, or, indeed, to NPB Consulting. According to the new version he has been MD of “Pelham Consulting” since July 2017. Pelham’s flagship product is a worthy-but-dull “UK party manifesto and policy tracker”. Perhaps this is a prudent change of profile.
It seems likely that Grenfell will always be a career-deflating albatross around Paget-Brown’s neck.”
R Totale
Jun 5 2018 17:45
Red Marriott wrote:
In his concern to defend the Council he apparently ignores that tenants had been complaining of safety and other management failures of their landlord for years. He wants to dismiss criticism of relevant politicians as just anti-Tory political prejudice - yet the Grenfell Action Group blog had predicted just such a disaster due to ongoing safety failings; it had also long reported how some senior Council leaders whom O’Hagan defends - including Paget-Brown - had apparently had their fingers in local real estate pies for years and were using their Council role to expand that involvement (see footnote 15 at link above).

He doesn't quite ignore that, but he does do his best to make it sound like it was the Grenfell Action Group's fault that they complained too much, so the council couldn't pay attention to them:

Quote:
I spoke to them about the Grenfell Action Group and repeated the allegations they had been making over the years, and the warnings they’d issued. I spoke to the officer who liaised with the TMO and she listened before sighing and throwing her hands up.

‘I can assure you I went through these emails. I’d check what was to be done. I clicked the links they sent, and there were thousands.’

‘So you didn’t ignore them?’

‘That idea is false. If I ignored anything it’s because I didn’t see it. And I’d feel guilty if I missed anything. But we were bombarded.'

So, the reader is clearly intended to conclude, if only the Grenfell Action Group hadn't made so much fuss, it would have been easier for the council to pay attention to their warnings.

Quote:
article wrote:
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

This banality is true, but nevertheless it’s clear that the K&C councillors were enthusiastic enforcers of these policies (and anyone who wasn’t wouldn’t have climbed the greasy pole into their leadership roles); they weren’t obliged to hand over council housing stock to the TMO that so fatally mismanaged it, nor did they have to so badly monitor the TMO and ignore tenants’ safety warnings.

Yeah, that was me trying my best to be fair and even-handed - probably too fair, since on reflection O'Hagan clearly isn't making that argument because he wants to help develop a broader critique of housing policy, but because he wants to paint a picture of his beloved councillors being persecuted by thicko proles who don't understand what's going on.
Anyway, updated the piece with a few more paragraphs, mainly just to stress precisely how unjustifiable his portrait of "activists [with] loud voices and good causes but [no] facts... throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding" is when you compare it to the stunning level of detail documented in the ASH report.

R Totale
Jun 6 2018 18:24

Updated again, as I've just seen a gobsmacking response to the original complaint from one of O'Hagan's researchers sneering "I don’t think you understood the bigger picture" at one of the interviewees. As for the fact that they list "the behaviour of the media" as one of the parts of the bigger picture that the interviewee doesn't understand... words fail me.

R Totale
Jun 8 2018 12:33

The latest development: https://inews.co.uk/?p=162568
Really not trying to give more free publicity to Lush (or the Greens) here, but isn't it odd how O'Hagan managed to write all those thousands and thousands of words about the council's response and how great it was, but failed to notice the small detail of them having to rely on a soap company to get vital translations sorted? Almost as if he was just repeating the stuff that Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen fed him and not making any real effort to look at anything that might contradict that narrative?

Red Marriott
Jun 9 2018 12:59

Having now read most of O’Hagan’s long article, I see he does acknowledge Grenfell Action Group’s long history of complaints but dismisses them largely as serial moaners. The article still reads like a whitewash & apologetics with various inaccuracies & omissions.

For anyone who has experience of hassling social landlords to try to get them to provide the basic services they’re supposedly obliged to give – it’s clear O’Hagan doesn’t and couldn’t care less for such problems others face. (Also note that tenants are charged by the landlord for these by often extortionate service charges.) One of the things that disgusted me about Grenfell was that the frustrations by tenants of dealing with useless, arrogant, disinterested and condescending bureaucrats were so familiar. It’s often a never ending battle to get the basics and in this case the consequences became murder.

So even if O’Hagan is right that the media played up the double-barrelled Tory toff stereotype somewhat he can probably be equally accused of playing up the stereotype of the serial moaner tenant activist which is a cliché undoubtedly a part of the dismissive internal culture of social housing bureaucrats.

For O’Hagan to present the statement from the TMO complaining of being swamped by activist complaints so blandly shows how clueless he is to the valid reasons tenants have for repeated complaints. If there are repeated potentially life-threatening safety failings and tenants are the only ones to recognise them or care about the danger – then to continue to demand the existing dangers are dealt with is presented by O’Hagan as an unhelpful annoyance. He implies that all the complaining may have even made it less likely that the issues were dealt with. Blaming the victims as usual; it’s as if they’re being criticised for crying wolf too many times – except the wolf really did appear. The Action Group rightly pointed out a culture of a general level of safety neglect by the landlord and its possible consequences.

He claims the Council & TMO’s behaviour had nothing to do with the fire occurring or its consequences; this is disputed at length by the excellent ASH report – which, considering what he claims to be his thorough “investigation”, he is surprisingly silent on.

He also fails to mention the legal threats made by the landlord against activists who complained – inc. some who perished in the fire.

As this GAG blog post (one of many on the issue) makes clear, RBK&C and the TMO were repeatedly made aware of Grenfell fire safety dangers and never bothered to deal with them;
https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/another-fire-safety-scandal/
The HCA, government housing regulator, also had one of their board members, a Mr Preiskel, sitting on the TMO board. He didn’t see fit to do anything either.

O'Hagan wrote:
why the council became such a locus of hatred after the fire. The answer may lie in what could be called the dislocations of compassion. It may seem right, in these times, to place compassion before composure, and to feel insulted by authorities who appear to think when they should be feeling. I’ve never met two Tories exactly the same, but I suspect that in North Kensington there is a deeply founded suspicion, among a small vocal group – a group that had lived with a Tory council for ever and were sick of it – that these posh individuals, the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names, their affinity with private development and their expensive educations, were sitting ducks. Seven years into austerity, and so soon after a close election, which the Labour candidate, Dent Coad, had won in Kensington by twenty votes, the climate was right for the storm of disapproval that was about to hit the council.

O’Hagan is keen to play psychologist with local GAG activists, claiming that , unlike him, they lack “composure”. But if applying the same kind of analysis to him we could suggest he instinctively feels more at home with those ‘people of influence’ who inhabit the same arena and similar social status as him, where they share a public voice above the rest of us; politicians, media people etc – and perhaps resents upstart voices like activist blog groups who challenge the dominant narrative of media hacks & politicians.

It may be true, as he says, that the media downplayed the resources applied by the Council in the aftermath and the speed they were delivered at. But he ignores the specific historical context; Notting Hill has endured the most intense gentrification over the past 40 yrs, all encouraged by a Council reigning over an area of poor, working class and super-rich living at close quarters. Both the board of the TMO and the Council leadership was riddled with rich people involved in property speculation on a grand scale. There are concrete reasons to despise these Tory councillors. O’Hagan so much ignores the social and class aspects of the situation that he only mentions it to sneer at tenants’ supposed unfair resentment of posh Tories.

O'Hagan wrote:
Paget-Brown was actually saying something true: he can’t say sorry for installing something that everybody believed was perfectly safe, because the industry told them it was. To apologise for the cladding would imply he was aware it wasn’t safe. But nobody wants to hear that. 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.

Yet, as landlord, the TMO was obliged to fulfil its duty to ensure adequate inspection of work done by contractors – and if (as noted in my earlier post) the Council could specifically praise the TMO’s health & safety aspect of the Grenfell refurb this makes clear that they were neglecting any adequate monitoring and instead ignorantly praising and simply signing off what they’d failed to investigate. All the while dismissing tenant safety complaints as an irritation. Much of the lack of adequate inspection of cladding works was due to the privatisation & relaxation of housing inspection and resulting fragmentation of tasks; TMOs & ALMOs were part of this fragmentation. According to the ASH report, the TMO & Council failed in the standard practice of ensuring adequate inspection of the fitted cladding and in other safety aspects.

For example Grenfell occupants had complained to the TMO of the gas pipes throughout the building that a contractor had failed to box in and fireproof, leaving conduits for fire to travel; after the fire the Fire Brigade stated

Quote:
they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas mains in the tower block

Occupants had also complained of long-running electrical problems in the block – which may be the reason the central fire alarm failed to work.

An architect quoted by ASH criticises the Council Building Control dept. for failing to insist that contractors submit Full Plans of construction details for approval, instead effectively letting them self-regulate. “There is a question that points to a “chemistry” between the contractor and the Building Control department.”

Incredibly, O’Hagan seems miffed that Grenfell activists weren’t sufficiently receptive to his journalistic enquiries and so paints a poor picture of them as politically biased moaners; he also pins blame on the fire service; yet paints the organisations whose Council/landlord regime was responsible for poor safety practices as the victims. And, seeing the hatchet job he’s attempted on Grenfell residents, why would anyone sensible ever talk to him again?

The ASH report is excellent and makes O’Hagan’s article look even more of a whitewash. They detail how the Council commissioned a report on how to gentrify the area; this report complained that the external look of Grenfell “blighted” the area – so the lethal cladding was added. Paget-Brown had been

Quote:
a councillor in the borough since 1986, and previously occupied the position of Cabinet Member for Community Safety[!], Regeneration and the Voluntary Sector, in which capacity he was responsible for driving a range of capital investment projects in North Kensington.

Paget-Brown was so pleased with the cosmetic effect that he was;

Quote:
quoted on the council webpage on the refurbishment as saying: ‘It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower.’

Maybe that should be his epitaph.

O’Hagan’s LRB article was criticised this week (Weds) in the Grenfell Public Enquiry for repeating the tabloid lie that the tenant in whose flat the fire began had quickly packed a suitcase and fled; when in fact he took considerable time to wake and notify all his neighbours and repeatedly dialled 999. He eventually left with little but the clothes on his back. So much for O’Hagan’s ‘conscientious, concerned’ journalism.

R Totale
Jun 12 2018 19:03

Not had time to read it yet, but knowing ASH's past form, this should be a pretty solid demolition job: https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/the-tower-rewriting-grenfell-ash-response-to-andrew-ohagan/

Red Marriott
Jun 12 2018 22:02

It is a good demolition of O’Hagan’s excuses for the guilty with also some critique of O’Hagan’s motives. Whether it is merely the wealthy cultural starlet O’Hagan’s instinctive, natural affinity & bias for the ruling class and their defence or a more calculated intervention as part of an orchestrated campaign in their favour as the public enquiry starts is hardly worth speculating over as it comes down to the same effect & attempted influence. Some excerpts from ASH’s response to O’Hagan’s distortions;

ASH wrote:
Responsibility for the deaths of the 72 residents lies in varying degrees with the private contractors and consultants responsible for the design, manufacture, application and approval of the flammable and badly-fitted cladding system; the Tenant Management Organisation responsible for the fire-safety of the block, for overseeing its refurbishment, and for retaining the ‘stay put’ policy which that refurbishment had rendered redundant; the Kensington and Chelsea council responsible for setting the budget that determined the selection of the cheaper materials employed in the refurbishment, and who repeatedly ignored both the residents’ warnings about the fire safety of the building and the warnings of the London Fire Brigade about the fire dangers of this cladding system; the civil servants and politicians responsible for sitting on recommendations to review fire safety following the Lakanal House fire against the expert advice of the coroner’s investigation, the London Fire Brigade and the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group; the government ministers resposible for initiating the estate regeneration programme that is subjecting the housing stock of London councils such as Grenfell Tower to the demands of market forces intent on realising the potential value uplift in the land they stand on at the expense of the homes and safety of residents; and, finally, the successive governments, Conservative and Labour, responsible for privatising the process through which compliance with building regulations is approved, and which has resulted in the safety of residents effectively being put out to competitive tender between private consultants such as the one who signed off the fire safety of the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.

Given this chain of responsibility, O’Hagan’s statement that ‘the question of who chose the cladding is a red herring’ is as ignorant as it is arrogant. [...] O’Hagan’s accusation against the London Fire Brigade is part of his highly contrived and factually unsubstantiated attempt to exonerate the council of all responsibilty for a process which they initiated, paid for and made the final decisions about on housing stock they own, and for which no amount of sympathetic descriptions by him of their character and behaviour after the fire relieves them of ultimate responsibility. Despite this, the simplicity of O’Hagan’s simplistic and inaccurate claim that the ‘stay put’ policy was responsible for ‘nearly all of the 72 deaths’ has been eagerly and uncritically accepted by the English press – including, it would appear, the London Review of Books. In this respect, O’Hagan’s attempt to blame the deaths of 72 residents in the Grenfell Tower fire on firefighters is repeating the similarly false assertions by the English press that drunken hooligans were responsible for the deaths of 96 fans at Hillsborough. [...] But if any reader would like to know the facts O’Hagan never mentions except to dismiss, I recommend the ASH report on ‘The Truth about Grenfell Tower’, https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/the-truth-about-grenfell-tower-a-report-by-architects-for-social-housing/ where each fact is linked to its evidence and can be independently corroborated. [...]

O’Hagan may have come from a working-class background on a council estate outside Glasgow, but his deference to and admiration for the English aristocrats to whose defence his article is devoted is total, obsequious and – which makes its expression here so telling – utterly transparent.

In this he has acquired the defining characteristic of middle-class consciousness, which is to regard any reference to class as an expression of resentment, an admission of an absence of ambition, an excuse for failure, the demonstration of a lack of class. ‘The politics of space is replacing the politics of class’, O’Hagan confidently announces, as if Feilding-Mellen owning a £1.2 million three-storey townhouse in North Kensington makes him part of the community, or – closer to home – his [O’Hagan’s] own relocation to Primrose Hill makes him a member of North London’s middle-class literati. I don’t know, but I suspect he’ll find that the residual allegiance of Britain’s rural working class to their aristocratic masters he so evidently retains sounds a dull note in the ears of his middle-class readership. Relating the opinion of an old friend of the mother of Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Countess of Wemyss and March, that ‘he was just perfect, and from a young age he wanted to be prime minister’ is unlikely to elicit anything but laughter and groans in the offices of the London Review of Books. But describing the Eton-educated property developer who, after the fire, ran away to his mother’s 5,000-acre estate in Gloucestershire as representative of what he calls ‘the classic English modus vivendi – letting people do their own thing’ shows just how little understanding O’Hagan has of the class struggle behind the Grenfell Tower fire. https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/the-tower-rewriting-grenfell-ash-response-to-andrew-ohagan/

R Totale
Jun 15 2018 12:33

The saga continues: O'Hagan has now actually responded to Coles, and it is... not great: https://willjharris.com/2018/06/15/my-name-is-andrew-and-i-understand

wojtek
Jun 18 2018 23:58

A walk through Kensington borough:

BBC R4: The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer'

R Totale
Jun 19 2018 17:46
R Totale
Jun 21 2018 18:23

A response from the Grenfell Action Group: https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/ohagans-ivory-tower-part-two/

Also, one more example of O'Hagan's sloppy way with the facts. Here's the section where he deals with the question of whether the deadly cladding was added for aesthetic purposes, to make the tower look more appealing to wealthier neighbours nearby:

Quote:
I put it to [Feilding-Mellen] that some critics believe he only agreed to the refurbishment of the tower to make it look nicer for those in the expensive houses nearby.

‘I just don’t know what to say to that,’ he said. ‘I’ve got letters from people in the tower thanking us for the job. Residents took me round their flats and it breaks my heart to think of it. They asked us for this refurbishment. The request was coming from them. And I can tell you there wasn’t a single appeal from anyone in the likes of Portland Road asking for the refurbishment of the tower. Not one.’

To quote from the actual planning application for the work, as cited in the meticulously detailed Architects for Social Housing report:

Quote:
‘The materials proposed will provide the building with a fresh appearance that will not be harmful to the area or views around it. Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east. The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals.’

The planning considerations listed include: ‘The impact of the works on the appearance of the building and area, and views from the adjacent conservation area.’ The materials used on the external faces of the building used were chosen ‘To accord with the development plan by ensuring that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected’. While the windows and doors were chosen ‘To ensure the appearance of the development is satisfactory. The re-clad materials and new windows will represent a significant improvement to the environmental performance of the building and to its physical appearance.’ The application concludes: ‘The changes to the external appearance of the building will also provide positive enhancements to the appearance of the area.’

And then there's this quote from Paget-Brown in the official council press release about the refurbishment:

Quote:
“It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower and how the improvements inside people’s homes will make a big difference to their day-to-day lives”, said Cllr Paget-Brown.

The ability to just pass over what was said in the planning application, and the actual council press release at the time, in favour of just repeating a politician's denial after the fact, is kind of amazing.