Why Grenfell council mustn’t be allowed to meet in secret

I’ll let you in on a guilty secret.

I quite like politicians.

I think most of them do what they do for the right reasons.

And I know that the vast majority of their critics would run a mile from getting stuck into the thankless, tireless, tedious work that makes up a huge proportion of a councillor or MP’s lot.

But my defence of these volunteer public servants – and my ‘put up or shut up’ instincts – only go so far.

And the Grenfell Tower horror has shown what happens when politicians – along with the whole apparatus of public services – are allowed to operate without sufficient scrutiny.

The shrunken regional media have to take some blame for that, as I said in a blog last week.

A lot of heartbreaking horses have bolted, but journalists are now tenaciously shutting the stable door against further tragedies, with some great examples of investigative reporting, including this from Newsnight’s Chris Cook.

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It’s been a torrid time for Kensington and Chelsea Council.

The local authority will be one place where one of the bucks from the public inquiry will have to stop. The chief executive has already gone, and others – elected and paid – may follow.

I feel for the council’s staff, who include a cousin of mine working in a completely unrelated field, and no one could condone some of the abuse that has come both their way and literally to the doorsteps of some councillors.

But the authority has scored a massive new own goal today by deciding to ban the press and public from a meeting of its ruling cabinet tonight.

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The council says it has taken the decision because of the risk of ‘public disruption’, and quotes an obscure standing order.

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The notice about the meeting (guardian.com)

Of course it’s a legitimate concern.

And doubtless the police feel they have better things to do than referee a council meeting packed with grieving relatives and neighbours.

But this is the thin end of a very worrying wedge.

Any council could argue that the presence of the public at its meetings could be disruptive.

In some ways, that’s the point. The public should be disruptive, up to a point. They should be allowed to challenge their elected representatives, to make them feel uncomfortable at times, and to remind councillors who put them there in the first place.

And whenever the press are barred from council meetings, deafening alarm bells should ring.  There is no public disruption argument that can be used here, so we can only assume the council simply – and shamefully – wants to avoid bad publicity.

The reason this is particularly worrying is that, 30 miles down the M4, in Theresa May’s own constituency, the local paper’s legitimate journalistic efforts are being trashed by her own party’s councillors.

In some ways, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead councillors’ abuse of the Maidenhead Advertiser amounts  to little more than what in football would be dismissed as ‘handbags’.

But it – and that other royal borough’s behind closed doors policy – are symptomatic of something which is more than just disdain.

It’s playing fast and loose with one of the pillars of our democracy.

The very best organisations – public and private – welcome the disinfectant of publicity and scrutiny.

We should push back against those who use the fig leaf of disruption to make life easier for themselves.

If Grenfell Tower was a result of anything, it was an appalling lack of scrutiny, and a complete failure to listen.

The council needs to put up with a night of disruption to show that a new day has dawned.








The media and Grenfell Tower: the good, the bad and the ugly

Just over a week on from the Grenfell Tower horror, it’s clear there are goodies and baddies.

Top of the list of those who have emerged with reputations enhanced are, of course, London’s firefighters, and their impressive chief Dany Cotton.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn showed some deft touches with a timely visit that saw him comforting relatives and demanding action. The Queen appeared to make light of Theresa May’s security worries by visiting the area, and caught the mood of the nation with an unprecedented statement last week.

And the people of West London have shown jaw-dropping community spirit in filling in some of the huge gaps left by the authorities on the ground.

Which brings me to the groups who haven’t covered themselves in glory: the local council, whose chief executive last night resigned, Mrs May, the housing trust which runs the tower, the building inspection regime, a host of contractors, ministers stretching back many years, and a political culture that prized dogma and penny-pinching over safety.

So in which camp do we put the media?

Well, it has to be a bit of both, as this excellent Buzzfeed article on local people’s mixed feelings explains.

Journalists have been able to tell the full story of this utterly man-made disaster in a way that has woken this country from a complacent slumber: highlighting raw suffering, amazing bravery, incredible generosity and criminal negligence.

But there have also been spectacular errors of judgement.

We’ll have to let IPSO decide whether the Sun really did get one of its reporters to impersonate a relative , although the paper’s statement of denial has the ring of truth to me.

The regulator will also have to take a view on the 1,500 complaints it has received about a Mail Online story naming the man whose ‘faulty’ fridge is alleged to have started the fire.

Mail Online – not to be confused with any national newspaper with a similar name, by the way – has sought to defend itself by saying no one could reasonably draw the implication that it was blaming Britain’s worst fire for generations on the man.

There’s an answer to that, and it rhymes with ollocks. 

With no buy-in from the man – he told Mail Online he didn’t want to talk, there was absolutely no justification for naming him in these unprecedented circumstances.

There are many, many people who need to be named and shamed over Grenfell Tower. A taxi driver from Ethiopia isn’t one of them.

The backlash against the story may have been intensified by the way in which this tragedy has allowed thousands of people to see the media go about its work for days on end.

Journalists have been exposed to very public questioning and criticism of their methods and their work – and not just at Grenfell Tower, as the BBC’s religious affairs editor Martin Bashir found when covering the Finsbury Park mosque terror incident.

There has been no hiding place for journalists – and nor should there be.

Some of the Grenfell Tower coverage may have felt insensitive, but there is a far, far bigger question for our industry to address.

A very telling piece in Press Gazette suggests that not a single newspaper or local news site covered the extensive warnings by residents at the tower over fire safety.

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Never has the phrase read it and weep been more apt.

The theme is echoed in an equally sobering article by journalist Grant Feller, who once covered North Kensington.

As I said in a blog last week, this mind-boggling horror that leaves us running out of appropriate words highlights the overwhelming importance of political journalism.

It can be deeply unsexy, deeply time-consuming, and deeply analytics-unfriendly.

Even with that most crucial and increasingly rare commodity of time, it’s not easy to sift out the wolf-criers and the serial whingers, let alone to find engaging ways of making the important interesting.

But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if journalists in West London had been allowed to spend more time making contacts, more time poring over detailed council agendas, and more time simply listening to real people, we might – might – not be where we are today.

I’ve spent too much time today poring over another document, the impressively wide-ranging annual Reuters Institute report on the media.

It looks at trust in the media, at the willingness of people in different countries to pay for their news (only six per cent in the UK do), and at the growing power of social media.

Essentially, it asks: What is the media for?

I tweeted this last week.

Belatedly, our politics is beginning to prove its worth at – when put together with the election result – what feels like a major turning point for our attitudes to austerity, deregulation and privatisation.

Now it’s time for journalism to prove that it, too, can learn the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

A mission for all journalists: to make politics matter

I was an expert for five and a half hours on Friday morning.

An expert in pretending to know what I’m talking about, that is.

Just a few hours after promising my wife that it was merely a case of whether Theresa May’s  landslide was just over or just under 100, I was BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s political pundit. Explaining why she’d dismally failed – both to achieve the majority she sought, but also to live up to my predictions and those of the pollsters.

Having missed the signs that May would be humiliated, I had another look into my crystal ball for my BBC friends: this time going to the opposite extreme.

“Ok, Paul, cards on the table,” invited presenter David Smith. “Will she still be PM by the end of the day?”

“No,” I confidently proclaimed.

Of course, she’s still at Number Ten, if only because no one else wants the job of dealing with the mess she’s created.

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Like Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, who masterfully seized on the phrase used against his Game of Thrones namesake, I clearly know nothing.

And perhaps one of the reasons I know nothing is that, despite living and working with young people, I underestimated them.

What was crystal clear from the polls was that, for Labour to progress, Jeremy Corbyn had to get young voters into polling stations.

Now, I am ridiculously fond of the young people who I teach, and who can amaze me with their work ethic.

But getting large numbers of 19-year-olds to be at a particular place at a particular time can be challenging.

Corbyn, however, has special powers. He was relying on a generation not famed for its reliability – and it almost worked.

The polls that predicted a May landslide did so because they assumed – understandably – that the youth turn-out would remain stubbornly low.

In actual fact, although the much-touted 72 per cent youth figure was a red herring, more reliable research by YouGov suggests the turn-out for 18 to 24-year-olds would have been 58 per cent: up from 43 per cent in 2015. There was also an unexpected decline in the turn-out among older people, and a 30something age group swing to Labour.

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Not only did the youngest voters turn out in greater numbers than ever before, they did so with greater purpose.

This was the Brexit Backlash. A generation which for the first time in modern history will be worse off than its parents making a choice that was both selfish and unselfish, responsible and irresponsible. Yes, they had an eye on tuition fees, and yes, they don’t really care where the money comes from. But this was also a vote to turn the tide of the erosion of precious public services. And this was payback time for June 23 last year: a day when millions of older and supposedly wiser voters participated in the biggest and most self-indulgent act of self-harm this nation has ever seen.

There were other things that those young voters didn’t care about: the right-wing media being one.

In a beautiful phrase in its leader column on Sunday, The Observer said the Daily Mail was ‘left firing analogue bullets in a digital age’.

And this time it wasn’t the Sun wot won it.

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This, I think we can agree, was the last death rattle of tabloid influence on general elections.

Some of the more thoughtful political journalists have admitted they were woefully off-target with their pre-election analysis.

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And there’s a good piece from Grant Feller accusing media commentators of being out-of-touch, middle-aged, males. To which I reluctantly plead guilty.

My favourite regional political journalist, the wonderful Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News, has also been mildly berating herself, despite she and her paper having the Manchester Arena horror to deal with mid-campaign.

With wise words on the need to reinforce political journalism’s value and credentials, Jen says at the next election, she wants to ‘spend ages and ages talking to voters.’

At the opposite end of the country – in my home city of Plymouth – is a man who comes a very close second to Jen, The Herald’s Sam Blackledge.

When he wasn’t writing brilliant blogs about Theresa May’s hollow soundbites  he was making it his business to talk to voters all over his city.

I’m more than 100 miles away, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds kept me in touch with the thoughts of people from all corners of my homeland.

In Plymouth, as in Manchester, every vote counts. The wafer-thin majorities with which people staggered to victory last Thursday must surely prove that – despite the unfairness of the first past the post system.

As journalists, it’s our duty to find out what people in our communities are saying and thinking, and to feed our journalism with these new insights.

The Grenfell Tower horror shows what can happen when we take our eye off the detailed political ball. Those tedious regulations, planning conditions, meeting minutes? They might be dead boring, but it turns out they’re a matter of life and death, too.

Politics matters. 

The challenge for modern journalism is to help people see that – and to ensure that their voices can be heard.

Politicians meet their media match

It’s a scenario familiar to many regional journalists.

On a day when you expected to be live-blogging the traffic, suddenly you’ve got two minutes with the Prime Minister. In an hour’s time.

You go into crowdsourcing overdrive.

What the hell are we going to ask her?

Maybe there’s an argument for having the equivalent of a fire drill for these eventualities, or of having some questions encased in glass that you have to break in such election emergencies.

For my friends at the Plymouth Herald, Somerset Live and The Bath Chronicle, this was their reality yesterday.

And – on the day that she decided not to take up Jeremy Corbyn’s kind invitation to join him at the BBC’s Election Debate – Theresa May found that my friends weren’t in a mood to be taken for granted.

Mrs May was last night accused by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood of running scared because her ‘campaign of soundbites was falling apart.’

Certainly that campaign failed to impress my pal Sam Blackledge, chief reporter and political correspondent of the Herald, who had a morning meeting with Mrs May at the city’s fish market.

It was an appropriate location for an interview in which she was as slippery as a Cornish cod, and showed about as much life as the catches landed around her.

Sam – in a first person piece that has rightly been well aired in the last 24 hours – described his empty encounter with the Premier as ‘three minutes of nothing.’

The sort of speak-your-weight machine responses he got from Mrs May are far from unusual.

But it’s rare for regional reporters to point out the Prime Minister’s New Clothes in such circumstances.

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So, well done to Sam, who has also been bravely fighting off claims of bias in his coverage of the general election in my home city.

The sort of lazy nonsense that Sam has had to put up with – and I’m talking accusations of bias now, not Mrs May’s blandalism – will be familiar to all political journalists, not least those at the BBC.

It was good to see Jeremy Corbyn defending reporters this week, after his bruising encounter with Woman’s Hour – and his colleague Diane Abbott’s dismal performance on LBC.

There’s been a spirited debate on whether being across the numbers in your manifesto really matters.

And sometimes the pub quiz-style questions can jar.

But I was very taken with this piece by Ian Leslie on why journalists are right to expect politicians to know some of the detail of their policies, drawing on the powerful example of rock star David Lee Roth.

He deliberately asked for M&Ms in his band Van Halen’s gig rider – but with the brown sweets taken out, just to test the venue’s attention to detail.

When you add in the contribution of Krishnan Guru-Murthy in challenging Brexit Secretary David Davis on his party’s wilful misrepresentation of Labour’s immigration policies, I think we can agree that it’s been a good week for the media.

I’ve always been keen to see the best in politicians: people doing an often thankless task, usually for unselfish reasons.

But at election time, it’s right that our dealings with the political classes should be laced with a great deal more cynicism.

We should ask the questions that politicians won’t want to answer – and publicly call them out when they don’t.

In the early stages of the election campaign, it was clear the two main parties wanted as little to do with journalists as possible.

Now that they’ve been forced to deal with us, you can understand why.