A year on from the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower that killed 72 people, the tragedy has become a symbol for many of the big divisions in British politics. Austerity, inequality, immigration and the housing crisis are just a few of the issues debated and disputed in the aftermath of the blaze, with accusations flying in parliament and in the press about warnings that went ignored and a lack of provision for survivors (as of 13 June, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 68 households from the estate are still living in emergency accommodation).
The independent public inquiry that opened on 14 September 2017 has the task of establishing what happened on the night of 14 June 2017 — what the fire safety provisions were, how the fire spread, and how surviving residents were evacuated and rescued. But it too has a symbolic role to play in establishing the facts in a transparent fashion and allowing survivors who feel rejected and ignored by authorities to make their own experiences part of the public record, almost as if it were a truth and reconciliation-style panel.
Experts, firefighters, residents, survivors and other witnesses began giving their testimony on 4 June 2018, in a first phase of the inquiry that is expected to last until the autumn. Day after day, heart-breaking stories of loved ones lost and life and death decisions made in the face of terrifying flames are interspersed with incredibly technical accounts of cladding and panelling.
An inquiry like this, of such scope and significance, is a difficult thing for the media to cover. The news loves variety; the Grenfell testimony is relentlessly consistent in its frequently horrifying detail. After the initial reports of the commemorations at the start, most outlets have — understandably — already settled down into writing stories only when a particularly moving witness statement or a revelation from an expert that might have political ramifications comes out.
This is why the Grenfell Tower Inquiry podcast, which is producing an episode every day that the inquiry hears testimony, is such a fascinating exception. The BBC have committed to this daily format, with reporter Sangita Myska attending the hearings and then sharing the notable developments each evening with presenter Eddie Mair back in the studio. While it isn’t exactly cheery listening, it’s compelling, concise and informative — and absolutely the kind of public service journalism that a licence-fee funded broadcaster should be providing.
I spoke to Myska over the phone about the process of reporting for the podcast, and what the atmosphere around the inquiry is like. She has substantial experience of this kind of work, having done a lot of court and inquest reporting, as well as other inquiries such as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
“I think what’s different about this, that’s set it apart, are things like. . . the very high level of attendance from the survivors and relatives and tenants,” she said. “I think that very much focused the minds of everybody there on what it was that this inquiry is trying to achieve. And that is, principally: ‘Why did my house burn down? Why were my loved ones killed? Why was my life put in danger?’ Obviously that has huge ramifications for anybody living in this country living in a tower block that happens to be clad.”
The tone of Myska’s reports is — rightly, given the subject matter — sober and serious, but she also does her best to highlight any lighter moments too, such as when one participant went hoarse from the hours of talking and had to be handed cough sweets by the inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
The inquiry’s much-publicised commitment to transparency is more than just a superficial platitude, too, Myska told me. “It’s not a trial, so we’re not bound by the same reporting restrictions,” she said. “But the way it’s been set up, it just feels as though everybody is aware of how important it is to be open and transparent.” She added that she’s often able to introduce herself to lawyers and participants during the breaks, sometimes showing them the podcast on her phone as a way of explaining how she is reporting the testimony day by day. This is where she gets the “background added value stuff” that informs what she says on the podcast.
Part of what makes the podcast worth downloading is the audio from the inquiry itself, which Myska explained is a relatively new tool for reporting on proceedings like this. The podcast is created by a small team within the BBC’s radio division, but there is a producer back in the studio all day, she says, watching and pulling clips from the inquiry’s live feed to use in the evening’s show.
“If it wasn’t being broadcast, [the podcast] wouldn’t be possible,” she says, “Because all you’d end up with is me and Eddie just chatting and me saying ‘such-and-such said this and such-and-such said that’.” Interspersing the raw audio with studio discussion is a format that we’re more accustomed to from American documentary and true crime podcasts like Serial or This American Life, where reporting restrictions are less onerous than they are in the UK, and phone calls from people in prison or audio from police interrogations can be broadcast. With the Grenfell inquiry podcast, Myska and Mair are able to act as curators, selecting the most pertinent moments from the mass of audio testimony each day and presenting it to listeners with added context.
The podcast form is integral to the success of this project, too. Free of the need to fit into a regular radio schedule, Myska and Mair can tailor the length and tone of each episode to fit the material they are reporting and discussing. It also ensures its longevity: with a podcast that runs independently of the BBC’s other content, Myska can’t be bumped off the news list when something happens elsewhere. Listening to the podcast feels like a commitment to understanding a terrible event that it would be much easier just to turn away from and forget.
Somehow, the fact that it exists at all feels like cause for hope — that the media is still doing its best to tell the hard stories, amid all the threats to journalists and allegations of “fake news” and clickbait. “When somebody says to me ‘it’s really good to hear that there are two journalists that are keeping across this every day’, it makes me feel that we are really fulfilling a need,” Myska says. “We do it, because we’re trying to provide a service.”