Thinking Out Of The Box

This was a longitudinal journalistic enquiry that employed many conventional and non-conventional investigative techniques.

The research process by which fundamental journalistic questions were addressed required thinking out of the daily news agenda box. Forward planning, management of personal risk in dangerous locations, and the use of complex research methods including: analysis of primary source materials (documents), cultivation of contacts over time, a wide range of in-depth interviews, use of data sets and web data scraping techniques, freedom of information requests, crowdsourcing/public contributions and statistical quantitative analysis.

Investigating the Lakanal Fire itself involved investigation of public records (land registry, fire authority minutes, Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005) and several separate Freedom of Information based inquiries (establishing a dataset on Fire Risk Assessments, Tower Blocks, High Risk evaluations). Each story identified new research questions and these were each pursued and published as the story evolved in the form of news stories. The research explored the extent to which the legal process was working correctly and whether public agencies were complying with the spirit of the law (or indeed ignoring it).

The research gave the facts of everyday life meaning by placing them in a legitimate policy context to explain complex realities of the self-regulatory framework for fire safety. Statistical analysis of research from Freedom of Information requests focusing on how many fire risk assessments had been carried out on all London’s high rise blocks revealed for the first time that public authorities were ignoring fire risks and the laws that governed their public responsibilities in that regard.

The Freedom of Information returns established a credible methodology. The analysis of the facts provided a firm foundation for the presentation of these facts as broadcast reports on the Lakanal fire and its outcomes, ensuring that they accurately represented a verifiable, and therefore justifiable, narrative. The ultimate sanction for getting the journalistic inquiry wrong was not peer review and critique, but legal challenge in the English courts.

Like much of journalism these inquiries were interdisciplinary and drew on a clear understanding of the disciplines of history, law, public administration, government, politics and economics, as well as of the complex ethnography of London as a multi-ethnic global city.

“I am extremely grateful to be able to use the Lakanal Fire footage courtesy of Nigel Saunders and Paul Wood.

All the fire footage of the Lakanal House fire is their copyright.

All other material is BBC Copyright and available through public access online or through the 'box of broadcasts' portal.”

Professor Kurt Barling - 2017