Before returning to academia as Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University I was an award-winning Special Correspondent for BBC London News from September 11th 2001 until March 2014. Before that I worked as a Correspondent and Producer for BBC News and Current Affairs and produced dozens of primetime documentaries.
My reporting on Lakanal House tracked the fire and its social, economic and political consequences.
This site illustrates the importance of interpreting journalistic practice to provide research insights into the relationship between media discourse and the development of public policy.
The research behind this website began as journalistic response to one of the most tragic fires in recent memory, the fire that claimed six lives at Lakanal House in July 2009. The story turned into the longest running investigation in my 25-year career as a BBC broadcaster. What started as a fire became a very layered story on fire safety, governance, social attitudes to council housing, building regulations, a lack of openness in public authority deliberations which necessitated multiple Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and the processes associated with a very large public Inquest.
During the Universities’ Research Excellence Framework exercise in 2014, I was invited to consider my own journalistic output on the Lakanal House as an impact case-study. I thought it might be possible to illustrate from this body of work how it remains possible to use investigative techniques to maintain audience interest in a story of vital public interest.
Public authorities have perhaps no greater responsibility than to ensure people are protected from harm. In the wake of the 6 tragic deaths of 3 women and 3 children at Lakanal it became clear that the public authorities had not done all they could or should have done to avoid these tragic deaths. The principle authority in the frame was the London Borough of Southwark, but including the London Fire Brigade and the central Government Department of Communities and Local Government.
In a story of this nature it is very easy for journalists to move on after the immediacy of covering the fire and its aftermath. Many media outlets did. There were a few exceptions. Inside Housing and the South London Press were two persistent players in the story. At BBC London I had the support of the editorial team to pursue the story as I saw fit and I set about finding new angles on a story with so many layers – social housing, public expenditure, fire risks, inquests, personal trauma, judicial rights, public inquiries, criminal investigations, building regulations, self-regulation by landlords etc. It seemed to me to be an important way of ensuring victims and London’s High Rise tenants had a chance to have their voice heard and to ensure an enhanced level of accountability of those charged with the responsibility of keeping residents safe in the event of a fire. I would like to credit here too, Ed Davey, my BBC colleague who spent time pursuing this story with me.
This story is as important today, in the wake of Grenfell Tower disaster, as it was at Lakanal. In fact the reason I have made this narrative arc available on this website is to demonstrate in the absence of doubt, that many of the arguments post-Grenfell were well rehearsed in the public domain between 2009 and 2013. Whilst the cause and specificities of the Grenfell disaster are yet to be discovered through a Public Inquiry many of the issues are well know to building and fire experts.
Whilst my work wasn’t any entirely solitary journalistic undertaking and it was by no means exhaustive, it was unique in its determination to keep the issue in the public domain because I believed the evidence of past conduct and inquiries suggested there was a very real danger of it happening again.
Two quotes from a report by the Parliamentary Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in 2000 on the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems convinced me this might turn out to be the case.
“We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.”
“We believe that all external cladding systems should be required to be entirely non-combustible, or to be proven through full scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk in terms of fire spread.”
These lessons and warnings were not heeded or acted upon prior to Lakanal House and they were clearly not heeded despite recommendations from Justice Francis Kirkham after the Lakanal House Inquest in 2013.
Journalism as a public good
Sticking with the story requires journalistic innovation, resilience, integrity, persistence and gumption to maintain viable relationships with all those with a stake in the story. Journalism is not necessarily but can be a public good to ensure that in a democracy debate is open, vibrant and sometimes extremely challenging of authority.
The narrative arc of this research begins on the July 9th 2009 the day of the Lakanal Fire and ends on 4th April 2013 with the verdicts from the Inquest into the deaths of Catherine Hickman, Dayana Francisquini, Felipe and Michelle Francisquini-Cervi, Helen and Thais Udoaka.
It reflects a longitudinal, regional television news investigation (BBC London) and illustrates how investigative journalism can flourish at a time when the cost base across all platforms, is being severely eroded and the BBC’s own budgets for daily, regional news programmes are under tremendous strain, severely curtailing investigations.
I have framed the stories through a single narrative arc comprising 40 original broadcast or online stories, demonstrating how the use of collaborative networks to help facilitate frequent and habitual sharing of information within the context of a systematic use of ‘crowd-sourced’ or ‘citizen journalism’ helped to nourish the story over time.
Unusually, I was able to pursue this investigation over a four-year period and it matured into an in-depth exposé of flawed decision-making processes in local government, a lack of compliance with the law on fire risks, poor refurbishment practices which reduced the fire safety of tower blocks and the conduct of emergency services from reporting to fighting the fire.
After the initial story on the tragedy of the fire, this story was widely ignored by other media outlets whilst my networked research (often using members of the public to gather data), Freedom of Information requests and meticulous scrutiny of public records revealed for the first time the way public authorities were ignoring fire risks and laws governing their public responsibilities.
It raises the question of how important this style of investigation is in supporting television journalism’s ability to influence public discourse on seminal stories and hold power to account irrespective of shrinking budgets. It is a clear demonstration of the kind of news processes that might help preserve quality in a downward cost-driven environment where both time and money are scarce.
The journalism remains a matter of public record. This website is now making that historical work available as a research document for others to use. It is important to remember journalism is a history of the present and the best way to use history is to guide us to avoid the known mistakes of the past.
My own reflections on my work were located within a large body of critical evaluations of the state of regional investigative broadcast journalism in the UK. (Barnett, 2010) The methodologies can be an effective way of plugging information gaps emerging in a resource-light news environment and help defray the affects of ‘churnalism’ in a 24-hour news culture. (Davies, 2008)