Oxford University historian Professor Timothy Garton-Ash has described journalism as the history of the present.
And there can be no stronger exemplar of this recording of history in the present than a long-running story. The longitudinal narrative that emerges becomes a contemporaneous record that can be useful when trying to understand the magnitude and impact of a story from a historical perspective.
Lakanal offers a historical perspective to help us contextualise the gravity of the Grenfell disaster.
However just because a story bursts dramatically into the public domain does not mean it automatically commands airtime on BBC or other media outlets. To justify its continuing relevance in public discourse a journalist has to establish the issues arising from a story – fresh angles or new lines – remain in the public interest.
Stories can and do wither on the news ‘grapevine’ unless newsrooms and journalists champion them. Where it is established that continuing to report is in the public interest the research needs to be increasingly detailed and meticulous. Those public officials responsible for exercising authority, are rarely keen to have their decisions subject to rigorous scrutiny. As a journalist you can expect tough responses and even allegations of bias, distortion and vexatious intent from elected politicians and their media advisers.
The story of the fire at Lakanal House offered a chance to explore how and why public officials take particular decisions which affect the lives of those they govern and identify empirically based explanations of why those decisions were taken. Sometimes there is a poor reasoned explanation for a lack of decisions if noone is given responsibility to make them. For example, it became apparent that this was the case for Fire Risk Assessments at Southwark Council. Across what I have described as the narrative arc of nearly 4 years, I was able to research a focused public interest story to test the basic journalistic methodology of who, what, where, when how and why things began to go so wrong so that on July 3rd 2009 it was almost inevitable that deaths would result from the catastrophic blaze.
These were precisely the warnings that I have argued were ignored and led to the Grenfell Towers disaster.
Click here to read peer reviewed article written for the British Journalism Review.
The material on this website takes the reader from the research outcome (the broadcast output), through the research process (interviews, Freedom of Information requests), following through with new lines based on previous research conclusions, to the conclusion of the public inquest.
At each point the story dictated a different methodological approach drawing on disciplines of law, public administration, history economics, government and politics and the complex ethnography of London.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire the focus was on knowing what happened. A number of open questions led to several lines of enquiry; ultimately these questions could only be addressed through serious investigation of facts rather than simple interviews of those involved with the story. As the investigative stage developed we delivered more disturbing conclusions.
The story required the cooperation and trust of the families of those who died and a number of public officials, so concerned by the turn of events, that they were prepared to take some extraordinary and risky steps to furnish me with relevant information. This helped me sustain a developing narrative. Deeper investigative research through complex methods of public records research (land registry, fire authority minutes) and by FOI requests to numerous public authorities delivered fresh conclusions on other fire safety risks that no-one was looking at, like timber framed buildings and public buildings (hospitals and homes for the elderly where vulnerable people were resident). Inevitably the outcome of the FOI research meant detailed statistical analysis and a good deal of interpretative research to ensure I didn’t end up defending my published conclusions in the courts. Journalists are not immune from the law or scrutiny and Ofcom is tasked with ensuring broadcasters respect the rules of public engagement even when a story is in the public interest.
Finally, the inquest phase gave me the opportunity to pull together much of the research knowledge I had gained over the previous 3 years. It enabled me to deliver insight and judgement in an area where little other broadcasting expertise existed. It helped put pressure on the regulatory authorities and politicians to engage in a debate about public fire safety including stimulating an inquiry into fire risks in the London Assembly.