Journalists don’t need to self-flagellate about Corbyn, but they should about Grenfell

SHAME”! by Rochelle Hartman –

In recent weeks journalists have spent an inordinate amount of time beating themselves up for not guessing the outcome of the General Election. This is bizarre. Journalists are contestants on Catchphrase: we say what we see. The news is not Family Fortunes, in which we try to divine what is in the minds of a hypothetical 100 (or 60 million) people. Sometimes, we are given clues about people’s intentions: through polling data or interviews or protests. And so we report that. Other times, we are asked to give an analysis and a prediction based on this information, and we do the best we can. But the idea that journalists should be humbled because they didn’t predict an outcome that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, didn’t even believe at 2am after the polls shut, is arrogant and weird. Presumably McDonnell had spent weeks suffused in Labour land – talking to thousands of people on doorsteps, looking at every bit of polling data – and he seemed as surprised as the rest of us. So let’s not be freaked out that the people whose job involved trying to report on one of the most unexpected, shambolic, rapidly changing elections of the past forty years didn’t guess the upshot.

On the other hand, I’ve yet to hear a single journalist speak of the profession’s failure to predict Grenfell.

Did you read that? Did I just suggest journalists might have cocked up on a fire that killed people? That instead of tuggling locks over Corbyn we might want to look a little guilty about some actual deaths?

Well, yes. Because as Mark Horvit, the ardent former chief of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc, once yelled at our investigative reporting class, “It’s no use us standing outside a collapsed building asking questions about why a man died. That won’t bring him back.”

Horvit was incensed after a walkway on the outside of a multi-story student residence at the University of Missouri collapsed, killing a firefighter as it went.

The university is famed for having a huge journalism school which operates a fully-fledged television news channel, a daily newspaper and a world-famous investigations department.  In the days since the collapse, it had emerged the university had been aware of structural issues of the residences – which were mostly occupied by international students with families – but had failed to follow-up with maintenance and repairs. None of us had spotted it.

He was furious. “This town is crawling with reporters. The documents were all there. We can clearly see from the records the university knew about this and had done nothing. But had any of us looked? Had any of us followed up?”

“It’s no use standing outside with a microphone, ‘Good evening, the collapse of a walkway has caused the death of a firefighter’… That’s no use to anyone. We can put in a thousand freedom of information requests now, and we’ll get answers, but we can’t change that a wife and a child no longer have a husband and a father.

“That is what happens when we are not paying attention.”

I remember thinking this was harsh. Everyone in the class was working hard. We were filing information requests like crazy. No one was complacent. We were not the ones who neglected the maintenance on that walkway. We didn’t cause the firefighter to lose his life.

But the speech did its job. It reminded me that journalists need to keep an eye on known problems. Since we started Schools Week I cannot tell you how many times we have reported an organisation saying they were going to do something to solve a serious issue, then, when we’ve gone back a year later, nothing has been done.

Why do we go back? Because I learned that day in Mark’s class that follow-up matters. That’s why, in 2015, when the government promised 13 expert reviews as part of its general election campaign, we meticulously tracked each one to completion. It’s why we printed the outcome of the one they were going to keep hidden. It’s why we made the Department for Education hand us the agreement with the Home Office that they wouldn’t use information about pupils to deport illegal immigrants rather than just let them away with saying they’d made the agreement.

Did investigative reporters, particularly on the nationals, screw up by not noticing fire safety issues before Grenfell? Yes. Inside Housing has been reporting on it for ages, including cladding issues. The government was ordered eight months ago to review fire safety standards after other deaths in high-rise flats. That report still wasn’t out 8 months later – and who questioned that delay?

The government have been woeful in the past twelve months at publishing information. They have hidden consultations across the board (we have three outstanding ones in education). Why? Because they didn’t want difficult information put out before a general election. Grenfell shows why that is downright dangerous. When ministers forget that real people are waiting on that information, to make real decisions, and instead treat them as a political end, this is where we end up: unintended consequences writ as large as headlines.

Why didn’t we see newspaper stories about this inaction? Partly because it is hard to cover things not happening. Attention focuses on action: walkways collapsing, dead firefighters. But, as journalists, we have to plug away at the dull stuff. Keep timetables on our computers of decision dates. Check back to see if things are being done. Write loud words when they are not. Talk about the boring-but-important and find ways to make it interesting. That’s the job. It’s not chasing glamour and scandal; it’s making the important into something interesting.

Second, it partly got missed because political reporting has become a quasi-celebrity form of reporting, minuting what the powerful do. And the politicians pander to it as much as the reporters. A juicy quote here; a contrived feud there. It keeps the papers busy and stops people asking or reading about the boring-but-important stuff. But if there’s a lesson of the general election and Grenfell it is that political reporters would do well to pay attention to policy over politics.

Popularity spins on a dime. Guessing the future of politics is astrology: using snapshots of the past, fragments of light in the dark, in order to predict a tomorrow no one can really glimpse.  Policy, however, stays as is. The workability of grammar schools, or free lunches, or a dementia tax, or renationalisation of rail, can be predicted based on data, and history, and stakeholders, and case studies. Those don’t change with popularity. Likewise, the Grenfell cladding was going to be dangerous whoever got into power. It is a problem anyone could have faced – and one everyone should have been asking about.

Journalism is Catchphrase. It involves saying what you see. But you have got to be looking in the right direction to know if Mr Chips is drowning, not waving. Journalists didn’t really miss the election story; they missed a massive, brewing tragedy.

16 thoughts on “Journalists don’t need to self-flagellate about Corbyn, but they should about Grenfell

  1. Very good, thank you. Prof Michael Marmot on last week’s Start the Week, BBC Radio 4 similarly commented that prevention is not as sexy as cure (although he didn’t put it exactly like that) and at a recent talk Polly Toynbee said something similar. As a society we really need to think and organise for prevention, and consider what the reasons are for not doing that already.

  2. This is an important and powerfully written piece, Laura.

    Not as immediately dramatic, or so tragic, I wish you would take up though, on the long, lingering tragedy of how teachers continue using multi-cueing reading strategies for word-guessing – which damages so many children’s chances of reading as well as they could and should.

    Reading Recovery, an entrenched establishment intervention programme continues to promote multi-cueing and is based at the Institute of Education.

    Successive governments have moved England on with regard to official guidance for reading instruction – but still multi-cueing word-guessing persists and little children are given books to read that they are expected to read independently for which they have to guess many of the words. This is unkind at best and soul-destroying at worst potentially damaging the reading habits of many children – untold numbers. We still have weak readers in many secondary schools and teachers of older children totally untrained in how to address this persistent state of affairs.

    As you know, this is all well researched – and this is verified through various researchers’ work as linked to via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction at .

    This issue may not be so dramatic or tragic as painful and unnecessary deaths from living in an unsafe building, but it is still an issue of accountability and tragic for those children, and their parents and carers, affected by the challenges to those struggling learners.

    And it is still unaccountable that authorities continue to promote very flawed methods despite what we now know about how best to teach reading. Teachers and student-teachers continue to get mixed messages about what and how to teach reading – all unnecessary.

    This topic is not captivating for the media. Mostly stories arise through an anti-phonics slant or an anti-phonics assessment slant. The story surely warrants some proper investigative journalism looking at the scale of this tragedy – not just the story of the ‘individual’. There are so many individuals.

  3. But some journalists did report it. In Private Eye. As ever, telling in a fortnightly publication far, far more about what is really happening in this country than the dailies do

      1. Keep an eye too on Hazards Magazine. The editor, Prof Rory O’Neill, is an ace investigator of health and safety globally.

        The way so many journalists – particularly broadcasters – have joined in and indeed often created the ‘elf’n safety myths , and certainly perpetuated them, hasn’t helped. It has aided the trend for knocking safety standards and favouring deregulation.

        Those of us working in fire safety and health and safety have been treated as spoil sports at best…David Cameron referred to the “monster” that is H&S.

        Your blog is excellent! Thank you.

  4. Very well said. I know the Times does good work in proper investigative journalism and has brought issues into the open that would otherwise have been buried, such as the Rotherham child abuse scandal, but it is the exception not the rule, and if every journalist was to follow this dictat then maybe more people would respect the media for doing a valuable service.

  5. “We say what we see”. If only.

    There are so few facts in today’s media, and so much (sometimes ill-informed) speculation. Listen to Radio 4, weekday mornings between 6.30 and 9.00.

    Oh for one day a week when news bulletins contained new facts only.

  6. Hilary Mantel speaks beautifully about this – memory and the ‘creation’ of facts – in this year’s Reith lectures.

  7. A superb article. I hope journalists will turn their gaze on promised mental health reforms paricularly for young adults because this is an area that is a disaster. Everyone knows this but why is there a collective paralysis or failure to plan and implement effective policies? As a carer for someone with acute mental health issues I cannot believe things are as bad as they are, hear lots of well meaning words and see nothing changing.

  8. Very interesting outlook…. Unique….. Some valid and challenging points raised.

  9. You’re right. People only see what they want to see. I’m glad people like me, and our stories, caught your eye.

    Keep on telling the stories, and amplifying ours. 👍🏼💪🏼

  10. Large majority of journalists play a role. They know how far to go and when and where to stop. They are often much too close to those are writing about and investigating – indeed there is often a cosy relationship. Same in education journalism. Make too much of a fuss, point the spotlight too brightly on the evidence and you’ll be out of work. It’s why nothing much changes. And occasionally navel gazing articles such as this one are written before everyone goes back to normal, and things carry on exactly as they were doing before. Private Eye is indeed a model for the way all adult journalism should be carried out. If people admire it so much, then they should follow its lead

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