I am reminded of the degrees of hostility the profession rightfully received after the first days and weeks following the Grenfell disaster. People thought we, us journalists, penetrated their area in an intrusive manner, and whilst doing so, not really hearing or caring. The distrust was not the least based on the experience of decades long disenfranchisement in the area.
When it became evident that the Daily Telegraph was going to publish extracts from the report of the Grenfell Inquiry, I discussed the matter with the foreign co-editor of the German newspaper taz, and we took the unanimous and quick decision that us following this premature publication was totally out of the question.
We had no way to check whether what the Daily Telegraph, and soon many other British media outlets quoted (including the BBC) was correct. I could have tried to persuade my contacts in the community to see the report ahead of its time, maybe I would have succeeded, because it was handed out to them three days in advance, but we decided that this was not on.
We understood that the affected community, including the survivors, were the only ones who were supposed to see this in advance. It was their right and not a competition for us to enter. They had the right to digest the report without the media coming to its conclusions in between.
The report was about to be released a few days later anyway. Whilst other papers beat themselves up to catch up with the Daily Telegraph, we did nothing until Wednesday, the day of the publication of the report, when I speed-read alongside some 20 other journalists the entire summary of the report within two hours in an embargoed room inside the Grenfell Inquiry base at Holborn.
I wrote three reports since on Grenfell Tower and the inquiry and community, one about the contents of the report, one comment piece, and one of the reaction of the affected community (this is the fourth comment, if you like). It was hard work, made even more difficult by the fact that on the day of the publication of the inquiry report, I had fallen ill with a massive headache amongst others. In spite of that, I followed a commitment to meet some people of the community I had promised to come for over a week. I would not let them down, two Aspirin helping.
When it comes to Grenfell, I have repeatedly over the years observed outrageous journalistic judgement. They include insensitive approaches, pressing survivors and the local communities for stories, and saying things in their name that were untrue or unsympathetic, or claiming to be “the voice” of the community, without a degree of humility.
As a result, whilst I am familiar with and know a good amount of people of the community, I am also at the deficit, of not having personally met many survivors, or interviewed them, as I respected their rights to live undisturbed lives and not recall their traumas just because I want their story. After all, as son of a holocaust survivor, I have a good idea what trauma is like, In a way this is also interesting for me now, because I still have encounters ahead of me, at a time some, not all people, actually want to communicate their story. That said, the fact that the inquiry offered survivors the space to talk in a safer way, to further knowledge to all as key witnesses, once with full support and for all, and documented, rather than but to one or the other newspaper or TV channel or radio programm, is I think also something worthy to note, here.
Journalism for me is always about respect for the individual a community. I adhere to this always, even when I don’t agree with the conclusions of an individual, I always see a full person in front of me, and am interested in the bigger story of an individual. I am grateful for the time, respect and honour they allow me to hear them, rather than understanding it as a self-declared right, for a story at all costs. What are we for, if not as transmitters of stories from one person to the other, who can not be there, with an attempt to allow readers to come to their own conclusion?
It is an exciting profession, which teaches you much about life, through the stories of others. But never must one use other people’s stories, simply to gain advantage out of a need for self-promotion. This is even harder today, because many of us, myself included, are encouraged to share our reports in social media, or because newspapers sell in accordance to the degree of excitement their headlines provide.
Gentleness, kindness, curiosity, gratitude, respect and a promise to report without changing the meaning people give before you is, most of the time, beside good writing skills, and a good memory and instinct, the guarantee of a good story. Those who lack this skill, need to find other means for their stories. Fill in the void what other means. To do so on the back of the community around Grenfell Tower, is in my view more than bad judgement. It lacks sensitivity, understanding and is all about taking a narrow advantage.
After all the talk on Wednesday, in the evening, a small club in London invited the Grenfell Tower affected community to be together and support each other. There was but one request on the invitation. It was not “wear black ties,” but simply it reminded possible visitors “This is a press free zone.”