Award-winning journalist and broadcaster, Jon Snow, delivered the prestigious James MacTaggert Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival earlier this month, citing The Grenfell Tower disaster as a demonstration of the elite’s failure to engage with the lives of those on which they report. The explosion of digital media may have filled the void left by the decimation of the newspaper industry, but it has not connected the Fourth Estate any more effectively with the left behind, the disadvantaged and the excluded.
The explosion of digital media may have filled the void left by the decimation of the newspaper industry, but it has not connected the Fourth Estate any more effectively with the left behind, the disadvantaged the excluded.
So says award-winning journalist and broadcaster, Jon Snow during his prestigious James MacTaggert Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival earlier this month.
“Never have we been more accessible to the public,” he said. “Nor in some ways more disconnected from the lives of others”.
Snow regaled the crowd of elite media insiders about the reporting of the mostly London-based media pundits, pollsters and so-called ‘experts’ and how very wrong they got it over the past 18 months: The results of the Brexit referendum, Trump, Theresa May’s “strange general election.” Wrong, wrong all wrong.
“The Grenfell Tower disaster taught me a harrowing lesson that I thought I had already learned but perhaps forgotten,” Snow explained. “We’d better accept that we are all in this together,” he said. “All of us in this room are, by definition, part of the elite. I believe that we have, by the nature of our business, an obligation to be aware of, connect with and understand the lives, concerns and needs of those who are not.
“In short, we are in breach of that obligation.”
Snow said he and his colleagues are too comfortable working in a bubble, with little awareness, contact or connection with those who are not of the elite demographic.
“This is what I want to explore with you today and how we can begin to remedy it,” said Snow. “It’s about exclusion. Disconnection. Alienation. But it is also about diversity and the digital age and why it renders the time in which we live.”
But the most challenging, difficult, yet potentially – the most exciting of any age in the modern media – is history. The completely man-made Grenfell disaster has proved beyond all other things how little we know, and how dangerous the disconnect is.
The cause of the Grenfell disaster was “hidden in plain sight, but we had stopped looking,” Snow said, referring to the now well-known reports sitting on the internet, waiting to be found, screaming to anyone who would listen that Grenfell was in danger. Kensington Chelsea Borough Council even threatened legal action to get the complaints removed from the public domain.
Last month, the new leader of Kensington Chelsea Borough Council admitted she had never been up one of the residential towers her administration was responsible for, despite at the same time being in charge of its children and families.
“Understandably, it caused something of a stir. Then I wondered: ‘how many of us has ever been up a local authority housing tower block?’,” said Snow.
“I admit I had only ever been up one as a youth worker, never as a journalist.”
Snow recounted the tale of Jan, a 16-year-old single mother and drug addict who – having fallen through the gaps in social provision – had abandoned her six-week-old baby and her flat, drifting in-and-out of New Horizons, a homelessness charity which Snow had worked for, for many years.
“We were unable to make up for their failings,” he said.
“I hurtled across London to the tower and made it up the many floors to her flat. The door was unlocked. The flat was in chaos. The baby was screaming. I made up a feed and carried her down to my mini.”
At 3 am, Snow arrived at the maternity unit at the University College Hospital, the very hospital where the child had been born, only to be turned away.
Eventually, Camden social services came for the baby. And despite the best endeavours of Snow and his colleagues, Jan, the baby’s mother, died two months later from a heroin and barbiturates overdose.
“I wonder to this day what eventually became of her child,” he said.
“I thought about her and about Joanne as I stood below the smoking remains of Grenfell Tower and I thought about the gulf between us all, amid the demonstrations around the lower part of the building after the fire.
“There were cries of: ‘Where were you?!’, ‘Why didn’t you come here before?!’ ‘Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell Action Block?’, ‘Why didn’t we know?! ‘Why didn’t we have contact?’
“Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain – to find pathways to talk to us, and for us to expose their stories? In that moment I felt both disconnected. And frustrated. I felt on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present day society and in which we are all in this hall.
“Major players, we’re going to choose the political classes for their failures – and we do – but we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live-on amid combustible clouding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms.
“How much time had we devoted to social housing in this year since the EU referendum? When day-after-day we found ourselves filling the airwaves with negotiating positions of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Davies, the Brexit bulldog, Jeremy Corbyn and the rest before serious negotiations even begun? Not just Brexit consuming the airways with so much political flatulence, stuff which we know from viewing figures whether you are pro or anti-Brexit, frustrate the view. And I haven’t even mentioned the antics of Trump yet, sapping our time, but we could and should have been devoted to subjects nearer the hearts of those who watch.
“We’ve learned that lesson this year,” he said.
Snow is still haunted to by my his own link with what happened at Grenfell Tower.
He and Bill Gates were involved in judging a school debate competition in London on the 20th of April this year, the final of a countrywide championship organised by the charity, Debate Mate. The winner was a remarkably poised hijab wearing 12-year-old, Firdaws Kedir, from West London.
“She was confident, she used language beautifully,” said Snow. “Bill Gates grasped her hand and gave her the award. “
On the 19th of June, a mere two months later, reporting from Grenfell, Snow spotted a picture of the child on a missing poster. She and her entire family-of-five are believed to have been incinerated together on the 22nd floor of Grenfell Tower. Two weeks ago it was confirmed that remnants of Firdos and her father had indeed been found in their flat,their identities were confirmed using DNA.
“Firdos had been described as the most intelligent, wise, eloquent girl,” Snow recounted. “I was fortunate to witness that first-hand and since then I often think: ‘What might have become? What were her life chances once she’d been picked out in this way? Could she have prevailed over the fractures in our society and succeeded?”
“Britain is not alone in this. Our organic links with our own society are badly broken, in part because the echelons from which our media is drawn do not, for the most part, fully reflect the population amongst whom we live and to whom we seek to transmit information and ideas.
“Grenfell speaks to us all about our own lack of diversity and capacity to reach into the swathes of Western society with whom we have no connection.”
“We the media report the lack of diversity in other walks of life, but our own record is nothing like good enough.”
The Sutton Trust has revealed this year that just fewer than 80% of top editors were educated in private schools or grammar schools. Compare that with the 88% of the British public now in comprehensives.
“It is why I want to urge everyone and anyone in this room with the power to do it: give individuals who work with and for you work with and for you the space to do something – anything – in the wider community we are here to communicate with,” Snow urged the audience.
“Some of us do plenty of this already but others do very little in this regard. It is one fertile route to discovering lives and issues about which we might never learn.
“We have to widen both our contact with, an awareness of, those people who live outside and beyond our elite. Our elite is narrow and deep. But the throng of those who have borne the brunt of austerity and not shared in the lives we have experienced is wide and even deeper.
“We can as a country no longer allow ourselves to be so ignorant of the lives of others or the conditions of people who lived in Grenfell Tower. It should no longer be possible to live in ignorance at the very present danger in which the residents of several hundred UK tower blocks are still living. That and the revelation of the utter waywardness of one of the richest councils in Britain, provoked a shock to us all.
“Our Queen showed more humanity than her Royal Borough. This is a scandal that speaks to all of us and we in the media need to respond.
“We as an industry must widen our intake.”
The television festival at which Snow was speaking has blazed a trail in that regard, building schemes aimed at developing both entry level and established talent, creating 90 fully funded places each year, targeted at rendering the content it produces more reflective of the people who watch it. The cost of the festival pass ensures the schemes remain free and accessible to all including year-round events and training.
“It’s a start,” says Snow. “It’s up to us to see that the potential exists for those on the network scheme to go on to fully funded apprenticeships, positions that have the potential to significantly diversify our workforces and hence the programs we bring to the screen. Seek them out. They have the potential to help transform what we do.”
Snow pointed out a young journalist present at his talk, Jack Parkes, who was the first person in his family ever to go to university, achievable only through a full scholarship.
At the age of 23, this very year, Parkes voiced his first report for Channel 4 News, reporting on unemployment and disengagement in the community of his birth.
“He provided that local pathway for them to speak to him, that might have eluded one of us,” said Snow. “He found them all through Facebook groups, a digital means of accessing communities that might otherwise have been closed. I’m proud to say that Jack, along with documentary maker Hannah Livingston, is one of the first people to be given the Steve Hullett Development Award today, another new initiative from this festival.
“The truth is we all need to build on this. Everyone needs to ask: ‘can we do more?’, ‘can we expand these slender gateways?’
“It’s in your hands.
“It’s not the whole answer of course but we need to open our organizations to the unconventional, the different, the diverse. The dividends have the potential – for example – to eventually help ensure Grenfell’s agony does not go unaddressed.
“I’ve no desire to find myself at another disaster, in another area of social housing that we never knew existed, where people are shouting ‘Why weren’t you here before?!’.
“I do not dream of the wars and pestilence that I have reported on. But when it came to dreadful tower, I was haunted, and I still am.
“I woke every morning possessed by the enormity of it and of its implications. Has our glorious welfare state, founded by a Labour Prime Minister, extended by that conservative Prime Minister, Macmillan come to this?”
Watch the full video of Snow’s address above.
Host Ross Ashcroft talks with the anthropologist David Graeber about Batsh*t Construction, a trend that has gripped the world.
Unless we start calling the housing crisis by its real name: extreme land monopoly - we’ll end up with ever more loony solutions for what should be a basic human right.