Scapegoating the brave: Grenfell Tower report and media response come under the microscope

The scathing and ‘hard-hitting’ report, by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, hit the headlines yesterday after it was leaked to national paper, The Daily Telegraph. But what does the media response to the circa 1000-page inquiry – which is only phase one of a two part investigation – tell us about blame and responsibility? 

Most articles on the Grenfell Tower tragedy focus today on the story of the men and women who risked their lives in the Tower on June 14, 2017. They ignore the facts of the matter – that the building was poorly maintained, unsafe and condemned by its residents in a blog that prophetically foretold the risk of tragedy. These articles decry London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) response and focus on the 46 recommendations that the report’s author, Sir Martin Moore-Bick has made. They look at the shortcomings of junior officers, 999 dispatchers and the senior management of LFB. 

Pure arrogance and chicanery

But they ignore some very salient facts. Crucial points that will most likely be covered in phase two of the inquiry, due in January 2020. What about the budget cuts to the LFB, led by Boris Johnson in his time as London Mayor? What about when Johnson told London Assembly’s London Fire Safety Panellist, Andrew Dismore, to “get stuffed” when pressed on the swathing cuts to fire stations, firefighter jobs and fire safety officers? What about when government ministers like Sajid Javid gave themselves large helpings of kudos for their ‘Anti-Red-Tape’ initiatives? Indeed, back in March 2017 it was the Daily Telegraph who called for a ‘bonfire of regulations’ as they hoped that leaving the EU would put an end to ‘vexatious regulations’, which ‘hinder business’. That clever slogan must now haunt whomever coined it. I hope it does.

Indeed, were I the editor of a national newspaper, it would have been these facts that would have seemed the most pertinent. The most scandalous. That corporate greed, a failure of building regulations, devastating government cuts and attractive and unnecessary aesthetic ‘improvements’ led to a the wholly preventable deaths of 72 people. That the building’s failure to ‘compartmentalise’ the fire meant the ‘stay put’ policy of the LFB when it comes to high-rise buildings was doomed from the beginning. 

The behaviour of the burn

Most building fires burn from the inside out. This fire raced up the non-compliant cladding – put there to make the tower look nicer to the rich inhabitants of luxury Kensington and Chelsea flats – and thereby bypassed all the usual measures used to contain fires.

According to the report, it took just 15 minutes for the fire to begin its ascent from floor 4, up the east facade.

Within 33 minutes it was on the roof, spreading horizontally across the crown.

One hour and 5 minutes after the blaze began, the tower was almost completely engulfed in flames;

“Flames travel across the north and east elevations of the tower, and start to spread around the crown and diagonally across the face of the building, affecting flats in the south-east and north-west corners.”

LFB didn’t stand a chance in containing the blaze and whilst their response did have failings, these may not have been an issue were the building not a massive fire hazard.

Part 3 of the Executive Summary: Conclusions notes that there were more problems than just the cladding, however. The report points out that a fire of “that relatively modest size” [a domestic kitchen appliance fire] was “perfectly foreseeable” and details how the design of the uPVC window jamb, insulation cavity and ACM cladding panels all played their part in allowing the fire to spread up and over the Tower, making the fire so difficult to tackle.

The part of the report dedicated to “the subsequent development of the fire” must be reproduced here in full, so damning is it of the building design.

The progress of the fire after it had entered the cladding is considered in Chapter 23. Once the fire had escaped from Flat 16, it spread rapidly up the east face of the tower. It then spread around the top of the building in both directions and down the sides until the advancing flame fronts converged on the west face near the south-west corner, enveloping the entire building in under three hours. I find that:

    1. The principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building was the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel. The principal mechanism for the spread of the fire horizontally and downwards was the melting and dripping of burning polyethylene from the crown and from the spandrel and column panels, which ignited fires lower down the building. Those fires then travelled back up the building, thereby allowing the flame front to progress diagonally across each face of the tower.
    2. The presence of polyisocyanurate (PIR) and phenolic foam insulation boards behind the ACM panels, and perhaps components of the window surrounds, contributed to the rate and extent of vertical flame spread.
    3. The crown was primarily responsible for the spread of the fire horizontally, and the columns were a principal route of downwards fire spread.

Easy scapegoats

Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, which started in Flat 16 on Floor 4 of the doomed high-rise tower block, were compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements before they received their advance report copies on Monday.  Gagged from putting their views across, they had to wait until the embargo was lifted today, October 30th, at 10am, by which time the Daily Telegraph had already taken the London Fire Brigade to task the night before. “Fire brigade condemned for failings at Grenfell” went the headline, noting that ‘systemic’ shortcomings made the death toll worse.  

This wasn’t the first time the LFB had come under intense scrutiny lately, however. Just under a week ago, Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE had claimed that the LFB response to the tragedy was tainted by racism. She said she had ‘no doubt’ that racism played a part and that if it had been a tower full of white people, the death toll would have been lower. Yesterday, she apologised for ‘any upset caused’ by her views. 

 

However, parallels between this inquiry and the McPherson report into institutional racism have been drawn – Tiago Alves, a Grenfell survivor from the 13th floor, today told LBC’s James O’Brien that there was clearly a kind of institutional inadequacy.

Hard-hitting, just and fair

Alves called the firefighters on the ground were “lions led by donkeys” and noted even commanding officers weren’t following their own policies. With grace and articulacy, Alves pointed his finger squarely at Grenfell Tower’s ‘refurbishment’ by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and the fact that the ‘crown’ at the top of the building – put there for purely aesthetic purposes – helped to spread the fire. 

Calling Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report ‘hard-hitting but just and fair’, Alves also suggested, as the report also says, that lessons were not learned by the LFB after the tragedy of Lakanal House, in 2009. He felt that perhaps Moore-Bick had been especially harsh with LFB because “perhaps they will learn from Grenfell [what they didn’t learn from Lakanal]”.

The report was welcomed by survivors of the fire and relatives of the 72 who perished in the fire, according to the Guardian. However, large amounts of criticism have been levelled at the inquiry’s focus on the LFB response to the tragedy and the policies it followed rather than a focus on what caused the building’s design to burn in a way that the fire brigade could not and did not anticipate. 

“Back to front enquiry”

Phase two of the inquiry is due out in January 2020. However, as already mentioned, the report did find the cladding was completely non-compliant. This fundamentally crucial detail, however, seems to fall by the wayside while those fighting the flames, acrid smoke and their own instinct to flee for safety fall under intense – and unfairly zealous – scrutiny. It’s easier to focus on the people who ran into the inferno and blame them than it is to focus on exactly why their ‘stay put’ policy failed so catastrophically.

That the blame for this tragic loss of life has now been laid at the feet of the likes of Dany Cotton, LFB’s Commissioner Fire Chief, probably comes as scant comfort to the one Grenfell survivor who has suffered the most toxic media spotlight since that fateful night. Mr Kobede, who lived in Flat 16 with his faulty appliance was completely exonerated by the report. Within hours of the fire starting, accusations were flying in his direction – he was suspected of terrorism, of saving his own skin and leaving others to die – of starting the fire deliberately to settle a score. 

Yet the blame game continues and the real culprits get away quietly – for now. The narrative shifts inexorably between defending the men and women who put their lives in jeopardy to save the beleaguered residents – and excoriating attacks on those at the top. All the while, the guilty corporate beasts and the man in our highest office – who oversaw countless firefighter job losses and reductions in funding for training, equipment and staff escapes that laser scrutiny, because we lose focus. Because we buy the line that we’re sold – or fail to realise that the point is being deliberately obfuscated.

Fishy timing of ‘Brexit Eve’

When this report was first slated to be released on October 30th, we believed as a country that we would be waking up on ‘Brexit Eve’. So did the government. I imagine that there were a lot of people who were relieved that perhaps media coverage would be lighter on the subject, that the tragedy would be quieted by the pile-on of government preparations for leaving the EU. 

As it is, I hope that the forced deceleration of Brexit preparations means that people can see through the discussion of what LFB could have – and should have – done better. There’s no escaping that there were a number of things that went very wrong. But the fault for those failings and inadequacies goes far higher than London Fire Chief Dany Cotton.

Anyone who says differently can get stuffed.

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