Andrew O’Hagan’s Grenfell essay attacks “the narrative” – but creates a flawed one of its own

Grenfell is a story about a fire. But it is also a story about housing, about deregulation, about politics. It is nuanced and it is complicated.

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It is almost a year since 72 people lost their lives in the most deadly fire in Britain’s post-war history.

Over the past 12 months, the Grenfell Tower fire has seared itself into the national consciousness in a way that few events have managed. The tragedy and its aftermath has been the source of anger, rancour, fierce argument, wild speculation and immeasurable grief.

But it has also become a blank sheet onto which one can project myriad stories about modern Britain.

Andrew O’Hagan’s 60,000-word essay in this month’s London Review of Books is just one of these stories. Published in the same week that the public inquiry opened with heartbreaking testimony from the victims’ families, the essay is a fascinating and thorough piece of reportage. But it is also self-consciously iconoclastic and at times recklessly inconsiderate.

Grenfell is a story about a fire. But it is also a story about housing, about immigration, about deregulation, about politics. It is nuanced and it is complicated.

O’Hagan’s arguments are similarly nuanced and complicated; they are also deeply flawed and have caused consternation among much of the community most immediately affected by the fire.

The piece starts with a long and detailed series of eyewitness accounts from inside the tower, intertwined with well-researched and tender portraits of victims, survivors and their families. O’Hagan continues to weave these characters and their stories into the rest of the essay. The compassion O’Hagan shows in this section makes much of what follows so uncomfortable.

Amid descriptions of the chaos and confusion of the night itself, O’Hagan is critical of the firefighters who tackled the blaze. It is not just the controversial “stay put” policy that is in his crosshairs, however. In his assessment, the overall response was poor, communication inadequate and advice to residents confused.

“The firefighting operation at Grenfell was a huge and dramatic failure, though nobody wanted to say it,” he writes. He notes that many were issued with oxygen packs with “standard duration” meaning they couldn’t reach higher floors. “But why were the firefighters not coming up with breathing equipment and helping them down? Why indeed,” he writes. 

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, has labeled O’Hagan an “armchair critic” and warned about prejudicing the inquiry.

O’Hagan implies a reluctance on the part of the media and the public to criticise firefighters, so often venerated as heroes. But it seems arrogant and – from a journalistic view – irresponsible to publish such a damning verdict on their efforts in the very week that the inquiry begins hearing evidence. The fire brigade is among the organisations giving evidence.

Unfortunately, this is not the only time in which O’Hagan’s reliability as a reporter could be brought into question.

There are a number of apparent basic factual errors in the piece, some of which matter in and of themselves and some of which suggest a more fundamental credibility problem.

On a section dealing with fire risk assessment, he claims that Carl Stokes, the assessor hired by Grenfell landlord Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), was not asked to review the refurbishment work carried out in 2016, which included the installation of the deadly cladding. As Inside Housing’s Luke Barratt pointed out on Twitter, this is not only incorrect, but easily proved as such.

Later, O’Hagan claims that Edward Daffarn, the author of a now infamous blog warning of the fire risk at Grenfell, was conducting “half-hour interviews with Jon Snow on Channel Four News, unchallenged”. But as Snow himself tweeted, Daffarn only gave his first full-length TV interview last month.

O’Hagan devotes a large section of his article to Daffarn and other activists who have risen to prominence in the wake of the fire. Part of his central argument is that Kensington and Chelsea Council and its then-leadership have been unfairly scapegoated by politicians, the public and the media, all of whom are looking for a simple narrative.

There is some truth in O’Hagan’s argument that much of the work done by the council – indeed by councils up and down the country on a daily basis – will always remain unseen. But there are fundamental flaws in both the logic and methodology behind his lengthy exoneration of Kensington and Chelsea.

O’Hagan makes no secret of the fact that he likes both former council leader Nick Paget-Brown and his deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen. “Self-sustaining decency was a commodity in short supply and I found I liked Paget-Brown” he writes at one point, and again: “Paget-Brown isn’t everyone’s cup of tea as a politician, but his dedication to the borough was total.” That’s all well and good, but he also gives them more airtime than he does to those who have criticised the council for both the failures that led to the fire and its immediate response.

He repeatedly cites a lack of evidence from anyone suggesting the council did not perform as well as it could have in its darkest hour. Yet he takes the testimony of Paget-Brown and others at face value. He allows Fielding-Mellen, for example, to cite letters from residents thanking for the refurbishment job on Grenfell, but dismisses those who wrote to the council with complaints as a vocal minority.

Fundamentally, this willingness to accept one story over another is at the heart of the Grenfell tragedy. Too regularly there is a tin ear turned to those accusing the establishment – represented here by the council – of negligence or a deficit of compassion. O’Hagan sprinkles his anti-establishment credentials throughout the piece, but the community living in the shadow of the tower will care more about what he writes than where he comes from.

There is a focus on the apparent lack of malice on the part of the council. At one point O’Hagan writes that there was no evidence of “homicidal intent”. But who seriously believes there was any such “intent”? It is a classic straw man and deliberately misses the point.

So does the repeated accusation that the council leaders were attacked for being Tories with posh accents. O’Hagan calls this the “narrative” that people were looking for. But in what world would the elected leaders of a borough where 72 people died in their own homes overnight not be forced to bear some responsibility?

O’Hagan appears not to understand that those who willingly enter public life should be subject to a higher degree of scrutiny than those thrust into the limelight by tragedy.

It is to be hoped that Sir Martin Moore-Bick and the panel he has appointed to his inquiry don’t share this confusion.

Gavriel Hollander is a freelance journalist, who has worked for Inside Housing and Construction News. Follow him @gavhollander.