The Day Social Housing Hit Mainstream Media

By Prioryman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On June 14, 2017, a violent fire rapidly engulfed a 24-storey tower-block in West London. Grenfell Tower became the most tragic social housing disaster in Britain to date. Grenfell surged as a symbol of the wider social inequality in the UK and in London, especially as it took place in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, historically one of the most extremely polarised areas in the country with regards to wealth distribution, where the ultra-rich live next door to some of the poorest and most socially-deprived communities in the country. While until the fire the conversation about social housing in the UK had been consistent but confined to a group of dedicated, established commentators and to a lively community of campaigners, the enormity of the tragedy has catalysed an unprecedented wave of attention across news formats and outlets.

Historical distance from the event is certainly needed to estimate the full proportion of Grenfell’s long-term impact on the media and political culture. Nevertheless, a mapping of the current debate is urgent and crucial to understand it fully and shape the conversation in the months and years ahead, keeping social housing at the forefront of the discussion. In this article, I will frame the mediascape surrounding the specific event and more in general, social housing, and outline the different and often conflicting threads of the debate. As the urban space is transformed by its representations in a two-way process, I will also try and understand which visions of the city this event is contributing to shape, in particular with regards to perceptions of safety.

Media Representations of Social Housing

A wide range of films, television series, and feature length documentaries on social housing in Britain and in London has been produced in recent years, corresponding to often radically different visions of equality, public welfare, and the right to the city. It would be beyond the scope of this article to examine them in detail here, but I will outline their main trends to contextualise current representations of Grenfell.1My current research project explores the ways screen media representations of urban regeneration in East London circulate within the wider social and political debate on gentrification, inequality and the right to the city, from the 1970s to the present. Within this wider project I analyse representations of social housing across different media, genres and formats.

A longstanding association between social housing and danger persists in dystopian and apocalyptic fictions and crime dramas. Council estates are never safe. In some cases, they are endangered by an internal menace, as in the hoodie horror The Community (Jason Ford, 2012), where the residents engage in a drug-induced cannibalism, and in the crime TV drama Top Boy (Channel 4, 2011-2013), portraying drug gangs in Hackney. In more progressive narratives, like Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2012) or Misfits (Channel 4, 2009-2013), the threat is external; deprived social tenants become (super)heroes.

Another important tendency in recent years is the great surge in documentary films on social housing, a response to a progressive exacerbation of the housing crisis. Some of them are docudramas blending factual documentation with reality show, contest-like spectacularization (How to Get a Council House, Channel 4, 2013-2016, Swap My Council House, BBC, 2014, Britain’s Weirdest Council Homes, Channel 4, 2016). Although they often are more the result of an overall production aesthetic, rather than the director’s approach to the subject, they can nonetheless produce stigmatising attitudes towards council tenants. A series of independent, mainly low-budget and artist-driven films is instead more sympathetic towards social tenants and range from exposés on the housing crisis (Dispossession. The Great Social Housing Swindle, Paul Sng, 2017) to specific case studies – such as the several films made on the Heygate Estate and the wider regeneration of Elephant and Castle – and essay films blending participant observation with experimentalism (Estate. A Reverie, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, 2015).2These are just a few of the films made on the Elephant and Castle area: Concrete heart land (Farren Blackburn, 2013), Children’s Games, (Mark Lewis, 2002), Up The Elephant (Julie Speechley, 2002), Home Sweet Home (Enrica Colusso, 2012), Larry and Janet Move Out (David Reeve and Patrick Steel, 2014). Operating in a longer time-frame than other media responses, film and documentary have a distinctive role in tracing social change long-term. As earlier screen media representations of housing paved the way for the current debate, they can take up the challenge of moving it further. This is happening already: a group of Grenfell “survivors, local residents, and volunteers”, feeling misrepresented by the media, decided to shoot their own documentary, On The Ground at Grenfell.

The preoccupation for a truthful representation of the facts originates from the long-standing political and media neglect Grenfell community has experienced. This originated a deep distrust, faced in person by reporters of different political orientation turning out at the site the day after the fire. Grenfell also took place within a wider distrust of conservative mainstream media, discredited as the government’s mouthpiece after the Brexit and the GE17 campaigns. At the same time, a distinctively cross-media response to the tragedy has brought different narratives to interact. Contemporary audiences often consume mainstream news via social media and, in some cases, bypass traditional outlets altogether. An Al Jazeera report on the media and Grenfell ten days after the tragedy pointed out that several people, asked whether they felt the tragedy had been fairly represented by mainstream media could not answer because, they said, they “only read and watch news on social media”. More tightly connected with the campaigners’ networks, social media on this occasion provided a space for a counter-narrative, a space once occupied by the now-disappearing local press.

Compared to previous tragedies, however, media outlets of different political orientations have been largely sympathetic to the victims, allowing a variety of voices to emerge. The Guardian and Channel 4 News have analysed in-depth the event itself and its connections to wider housing issues. BBC Newsnight has covered Grenfell in most of its episodes since the fire and has been quite effective in pinning down both national and local government to their responsibilities: Theresa May’s picture at the site avoiding survivors was matched with George W. Bush’s looking at the areas devastated by Katrina from Air Force One. In an interview, Emily Maitlis cornered the Prime Minister with direct questions on the preventable nature of the tragedy and her misreading of the public mood. May evaded them, robotically repeating how “horrifying”, “absolutely horrifying” this “terrible tragedy” was.

Learning from the past?

“Lessons must be learnt”, the most repeated refrain after the fire, emphasises the exceptionality of the moment and its transformative potential. However, a more careful scrutiny of previous reporting shows that there have been other moments where the debate on social housing had the chance to shift to a more articulate, wider level. Grenfell demonstrates that lessons are indeed hard to learn and also that repeated warnings have been ignored. The extent of the present coverage does not necessarily guarantee a long-term follow up to the event.3Grenfell Action Group blog pointed health and safety risks in multiple occasions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders . . . their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.”, “KCTMO – Playing with fire!”, November 20, 2016. One the posts on health and safety risks dates back to 2013. A long series of incidents in post-war tower blocks were evoked: the Knowsley Heights fire in Huyton 1991, the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 (the most disastrous fire in a tower block before Grenfell) and the Ronan Point disaster in 1968, where a gas explosion made an entire aisle of a tower block collapse. After each of these disasters, reports and warnings were issued and the long list of disasters repeatedly evoked by the press, suggesting an impending, radical change that never took place, as media attention gradually waned.

Tower-living and risk

The association between social housing and safety issues, remained, instead, tightly connected in the collective imagination with the failure of system-built post-war architecture. A December 2009 Daily Mail article reported a fire in a tower block in Peckham the previous week as the “reminder of the risks of high-rise and high-density housing”. Although the article strikingly resembles those we are reading now in the identification of causes, it placed a different emphasis on the notion that 1960s tower blocks and system-built complexes themselves are dangerous and need to be demolished. In the case of Grenfell, this association between disasters, faulty architecture and the tenants who live in it has not been such a consistent feature of the reporting as in the past, but it has not disappeared completely. So while the cladding refurbishment was immediately identified as one of the possible causes for the incredibly rapid spreading of the fire, the front page illustrations and sensationalist headlines of both online and mainstream print media emphasised the high-rise/tower block itself as a death-trap, transfigured in an apocalyptic, “film-like” spectacle.

Not all towers are equal

This testifies to a double-sided attitude to high-rise living in London in the media and political debate. Responding to questions on Grenfell at the State of London Debate on June 29, London Mayor Sadiq Khan asked: “if it is the case that the fire brigade can’t be reassured that steps ABCDE are enough to make the tower block safe, I question, are tower blocks the future?” If we were to look at the number of high-rises built in London for and by the ultra-rich in recent years and those undergoing construction, we would have to give an affirmative answer to this question. However, at an LSE debate in June, the Mayor made clear that his Good Growth plan for London will address this situation and “a more discerning approach to tall buildings” needs to be taken, because, ultimately, the skyline of the city “belongs to Londoners”. At the same time, in an opinion piece published on The Guardian four days after the fire, Khan wrote: “It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down. Of course, this must mean people being rehoused in the same areas where they have put down roots”. However, whenever demolition of council stock is brought up as a solution for housing problems in the public debate, we must be extremely cautious, because this is is precisely the area where the discourse on regeneration intertwines with real estate speculation and the neoliberal agenda, leading to social tenants being displaced, rather than re-housed in the same borough. This delicate aspect has been picked up by the debate: Simon Jenkins shared Khan’s view, but other writers, like Anna Minton and Owen Hatherley, raised their voices to defend the post-war housing heritage.

In 2007, the BBC One documentary The Tower: A Tale of Two Cities followed the refurbishment of a Deptford riverside tower block for luxury tenants while the other blocks in the same social housing complex, the Pepys Estate, were left as social housing and in decay. A voiceover in the first episode introduces the story: “London, in the 21st century. For the people who live here, it can be the best of times and the worst of times. This is the story of both in one place, of two separate worlds coming together on the bend of the river, at Deptford. This is the tale of The Tower.” The tower block, whose destiny is either to be neglected or demolished,­­­ and the luxury high-rise of Ballardian memory, which is still considered a viable and profitable option for urban development, therefore belong to two different worlds, the two opposite icons of a growingly unequal city.4Important contributions on the subject of London, regeneration and inequality are Chris Hammett’s Unequal City: London in the Global Arena (London: Routledge, 2003) and Anna Minton’s very recent Big Capital. Who is London for? (London: Penguin, 2017).

Technical aspects under the microscope

Like the discourse on tower blocks lends itself to ambiguities, so does the conversation on the technical aspects of the disaster. On June 16, The Daily Mail blamed the 2008 Climate Act and its enforcement by Labour local and national governments by retro-fitting tower-blocks with external cladding, as “one of many dangerous follies caused by the public policy agenda which elevates climate change above virtually all other considerations”. Although this interpretation was rapidly discredited, The Daily Mail persisted with it at least until early July.

The tech specs of the disaster were largely dissected in news and talk shows with a profusion of graphs and animations. However, the devastating effect of cladding in tower block refurbishment is no recent news; it had been well-known since as early as 1991, when Knowsley Heights fire took place. One of the main contributory factors appears to be the low quality of the refurbishment, which has led Met Police to consider Grenfell a possible case for Corporate Manslaughter. Although technical aspects are crucial in establishing the truth and they must not be underestimated, they must be framed within the wider conditions enabling their mishandling and a longer history of neglect not just of the material conditions these communities lived in, but of the people themselves. Grenfell’s multiracial, working class tenants became a focus of media attention for the first time only in the aftermath of the fire.

Depicting the Anger

While the main narrative surrounding the victims was generally sympathetic, a different approach emerged as they became protesting citizens. In the tabloids headlines their anger appeared incontrollable and irrational.5See, as an example, The Sun on June 16, 2017: “AND NOW THE ANGER. Furious locals confront Mayor.” The reportage covering the protest on Newsnight pictured the residents as an angry mob descending on the streets of Kensington & Chelsea, with a repeated emphasis on anger in the wording, creating a sense of impending danger.616/07/2017. The representation of the raging council tenants thus easily slips back into a wider repertoire of biased narratives of social housing where the association between tower blocks, apocalypse and danger extends to the people that inhabit them.

The city as a perpetually unsafe space

Different kinds of danger and unrest are levelled into an image of a city under siege. The “day of rage” on June 21 – a protest march on Parliament to ask for Theresa May’s resignation – was largely framed in an atmosphere of impending danger by the conservative press. The Daily Mail implied that: “Far-left agitators plotted to exploit the fire with a ‘Day of Rage’. Rather than exploring the reasons for this unrest in connection with similar manifestations globally, the mainstream media labelled it as violent, untargeted anger. At the same time, in the days following the tragedy, a series of reports of sudden fires, mainly but not limited to council housing – kept appearing in the news updates, but the causes for those incidents were never fully explored, they became the white noise of a perpetually burning city.

Although enhanced attention to health and safety measures is welcome and necessary, even if overdue, this discourse irrationally assimilates different degrees and kinds of unsafety – from lack of ordinary maintenance to emergencies – rather than projecting the image of a city where standard procedures of safety are under control.

In these past months, London witnessed terrorist attacks in Westminster, London Bridge and Finsbury Park; acid attacks in East London; and, finally, ‘riots’ in Dalston: on July 28, a peaceful protest, following the death of Rashan Charles after being searched by the police in a shop in Hackney on July 22, degenerated into a series of confrontations between the police and the demonstrators. At 7.00 am the following morning, the headline on The Daily Mail online was “LONDON’S BURNING”, to be replaced, a few hours later, with “POLICE DEATH RIOTS”. Although both headlines are inflammatory in different ways (the second evoking the 2011 riots) the first one is clearly more apocalyptic.7The front page in the print version was all about Charlie Gard’s death.

The portrayal of urban space as fundamentally unsafe and the heightened perception of a constant danger can be related to different factors (terrorism, knife crime, acid attacks) and diverted to particular agendas, from the anti-immigration one, to the securitization of a public space that is increasingly privately owned.8Privatisation and securitisation of public space are two often inter-connected aspects. Anna Minton explored the privatisation of public space in Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city (London: Penguin, 2012) and a Guardian Cities investigation has recently covered the extension of pseudo-public space, “Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London”, July 24, 2017. London remains a terrain where multiple, often conflicting discourses unfold, from a permanently unsafe urban space to a welcoming and secure one (#Londonisopen). It thus becomes particularly important to look at the wider picture of protests that are deeply rooted in a long-standing inequality. Grenfell can – and should – be the turning point where the inherently unequal vision of the city can be radically challenged for the first time, but it will only become one if we keep decoding its conflicting representations.

Notes   [ + ]

1. My current research project explores the ways screen media representations of urban regeneration in East London circulate within the wider social and political debate on gentrification, inequality and the right to the city, from the 1970s to the present. Within this wider project I analyse representations of social housing across different media, genres and formats.
2. These are just a few of the films made on the Elephant and Castle area: Concrete heart land (Farren Blackburn, 2013), Children’s Games, (Mark Lewis, 2002), Up The Elephant (Julie Speechley, 2002), Home Sweet Home (Enrica Colusso, 2012), Larry and Janet Move Out (David Reeve and Patrick Steel, 2014).
3. Grenfell Action Group blog pointed health and safety risks in multiple occasions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders . . . their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.”, “KCTMO – Playing with fire!”, November 20, 2016. One the posts on health and safety risks dates back to 2013.
4. Important contributions on the subject of London, regeneration and inequality are Chris Hammett’s Unequal City: London in the Global Arena (London: Routledge, 2003) and Anna Minton’s very recent Big Capital. Who is London for? (London: Penguin, 2017).
5. See, as an example, The Sun on June 16, 2017: “AND NOW THE ANGER. Furious locals confront Mayor.”
6. 16/07/2017.
7. The front page in the print version was all about Charlie Gard’s death.
8. Privatisation and securitisation of public space are two often inter-connected aspects. Anna Minton explored the privatisation of public space in Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city (London: Penguin, 2012) and a Guardian Cities investigation has recently covered the extension of pseudo-public space, “Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London”, July 24, 2017.

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