Grenfell Tower and the dwindling of local newspapers…

THE media coverage of Grenfell Tower has been as intense as you would expect, and this unblinking eye raises many questions.

This morning, for example, it is being reported that shadow chancellor John McDonnell claims that the victims were ‘murdered’ by political decisions. That doesn’t sound helpful or wise, but perhaps something has been lost, or over-emphasised, in translation.

You can also read today about the tower blocks around the country being declared unsafe because they are dressed in similar cladding. And in the weekend papers, you can catch up with the many angles of this awful affair, not least the survivors made homeless by the blaze, and the practical problems they face, as well as the emotional and mental difficulties.

Early in the coverage, I spotted a quote flash by online from a woman who either survived or lived nearby. She apparently told Channel 4’s Jon Snow that they didn’t want his cameras here now. For some reason, my searches since have failed to snatch that ‘fish’ from the stream.

But it set me thinking that one problem with such coverage is that it all happens after the event. Now this is both an obvious and a stupid thing to say: clearly, a sensible person will grumble, the media are only interested in something after it has happened.

This is true, but it is only part of the truth. The pre-fire problems that have emerged since, the worries of residents listed on social media and so forth, perhaps should have been picked up by someone.

Why, I wondered, wasn’t there a local newspaper reporter on the case long before anything happened? The answers to this are various, but probably mostly connected to the parlous state of local newspapers.

As this thought was evolving, a post appeared on the Press Gazette website about a former local reporter called Grant Feller (a name surely coined by a novelist in a playful mood).

Grant was quoted as saying that when he worked on local papers in Kensington nearly 30 years ago, he was sure the fire safety concerns of Grenfell Tower residents would have found a voice.

Instead, the decline in London’s local press had made that more difficult.

According to the Press Gazette, “today, Kensington and Chelsea has one dedicated local newspaper – the Kensington and Chelsea News – which (at full strength) has a reporter who covers it as well as other London boroughs”.

When Grant began his career on the Kensington News and Chelsea News, the two titles had an editorial team of ten and faced competition from the Kensington and Chelsea Times and the Evening Standard, which in those days devoted greater resources to covering the local boroughs.

Asked whether he thought residents’ concerns would have been picked up in 1990, Grant told Press Gazette: “One hundred per cent yes, we would have picked up on that. If we hadn’t we would have been bollocked by the editor. Any local newspaper journalist worth their salt would have been all over that story because of that blog. But today there is no one there.”

There is no one there… a sad truth in many parts of the county, where local newspapers have either shut down or been diminished, with one or maybe two reporters expected to cover a huge area – following that gloomy modern diktat that they should “do more with less”.

The continuing decline of local newspapers isn’t noted as much as it should be. The South East London Mercury, a great paper and my newspaper stomping ground, disappeared when it was absorbed by the South London Press. It still exists in name, but only as a ghost in somebody else’s house.

Local newspapers are not always exciting, but they do an important job for their communities. They also cover what happens in the local courts and the local council – or they used to, as court coverage is slipping in some areas as the papers dwindle, harried by the digital world, and sometimes too by their owners’ commercial philosophy.

I studied Latin at school but remember little, so I won’t quote the original. But a common legal aphorism is: “Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”

Local newspapers play a big part in that, or they did: reporting everything from the local courts. The effect was two-fold: the guilty had a double punishment, with a dollop of local shame added to their sentence; and journalists were in the courts to see and record the workings of the legal system.

I should stress that this hasn’t gone altogether, but consistent court coverage is less common than it was.

As for a bollocking from the editor, as mentioned by Grant Feller, that form of telling off was a strong impetus to get out there and find something out.

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