Historical reflections on Grenfell Tower

When I read that Jon Snow had told his MacTaggart lecture audience that he believed the modern media were out of touch with ordinary people’s lives I must say I almost spat out my coffee.

The media out of touch? Really? Who knew? He’ll be telling us that politicians are out of touch next…

But seriously (because what happened at Grenfell Tower was deadly serious) Snow is of course correct. The mainstream media in Britain for the most part exists in its own bubble and – as Snow pointed out in a radio interview on Wednesday morning – is populated by people who have been educated at the best schools and who come from more privileged backgrounds than the majority of the population. This is not to dismiss them all as lapdogs of the ruling elite; there are plenty of excellent journalists and broadcasters  who hold the government of the day to account and help expose corruption, child abuse, human trafficking and a range of other crimes, but his observation is timely and accurate.

Snow was making a call for diversity in his industry and was admitting that he and his peers had failed to notice the reality of the situation that the residents of Grenfell had been  warning people about for years. The media hadn’t looked at Grenfell until Grenfell erupted into flames and perhaps as many as a hundred people lost their lives.

What happened at Grenfell Tower was a product of austerity and inequality and symptomatic of a society where the lives of some people are deemed less valuable than those of others. The media was shocked at what they found when they visited the tower and talked to residents and neighbours. They were seemingly surprised to hear that this community could come together and enact a rescue and support plan for those displaced, bereaved and traumatised by the fire without the help of the local council. They then spent several weeks revealing to a shocked audience that thousands of other tenants up and down the country were living in tower blocks that were just as dangerous as Grenfell was.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy held the attention of the news media 24/7 for several days and continued to feature in the news broadcasts and pages of the press for weeks afterwards. It will pop up now and again as police investigations (hopefully) lead to arrests, prosecutions and long prison sentences for those responsible. But ultimately the disaster is now yesterday’s news and there is no media huddle in that part of north west London.

Jon Snow’s comments reminded me of news reportage of the Whitechapel murders in 1888, something I lecture on here at the University of Northampton as part of our History degree programme.

From August 1888 a series of brutal murders horrified Londoners and the rest of the world. The killer, never formally identified and known to history by a sobriquet probably bestowed on him by a journalist or newspaper editor, became the biggest story of the year. By the time ‘Jack the Ripper’ had killed at least four women (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes) the world’s press were encamped in the East End of London. They speculated as to the identity of the murderer, they interfered with the police investigation, and they expressed their collective disgust and concern at the conditions that the people of Whitechapel were living in.

This was (as the American writer Jack London described it) ‘the Abyss’. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overcrowded with tens of thousands crammed in to a small area living in fetid courts and cellars, in lodging houses with no running water, where children ran barefoot and lacked a proper education. In the factory workshops men and women were ‘sweated’, forced to work for hours on end without a break for barely subsistence wages. Those that organised together to fight or expose this exploitation were, to most of the press, dangerous anarchists and socialists bent on revolution and social unrest. Demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in 1886 and 1887 had provided society with a warning of how inequality and capitalist exploitation threatened to bring the whole gleaming edifice of Victorian society and Empire to its knees.

For some sections of the press  what was happening in Whitechapel was an inevitable consequence of the degraded state of the people that lived them. Jack the Ripper was a creation of the slums, brought to life by  John Tenniel’s dark vision of a phantom killer floating through the streets, knife in hand.

Whitechapel and the East End had featured in press reports before; the poverty and acute housing crisis there was nothing new in 1888. Slummers and more well-meaning philanthropists had been writing about the area for years before the Ripper struck. There were a few attempts at reform; the government passed some legislation to improve housing or address sweating but the reality remains the same: many people lived in desperate poverty and, for the most part, they were left to live out their lives unloved and unnoticed by the wealthier side of the capital. Whitechapel only grabbed the attention of the Victorian press when something happened there, like the murders of 1888 or the Match Girls’ strike at Bryant & May’s. Then the press rushed in to report what they saw, profit from the sale of newspapers, indulge their passion for commenting on the lives of others, making demands that ‘something mist be done’, and then leaving to move on to the next big story that would fascinate or titillate their readership. Before Mary Kelly’s corpse was properly interred in an unmarked grave the media had returned to their comfortable West End offices.

And so I can see the historical parallels with Whitechapel in 1888 and Grenfell Tower in 2017. In both cases here was a community that was at the bottom of society’s long ladder, neglected, ignored, and to most of us, unknown. We kind of knew that there were poor people in our society, the Left had been telling us this for years. Austerity has hit hardest in working class communities not in the homes or pockets of the upper middle class elite that runs the country. It was the same in the late Victorian period when the economic miracle of the Victorian period had faded into a slump and mini depression. We don’t have demonstrations of the ‘slightly worse off’ marching though suburbia and the people that camped in Trafalgar Square or by the Serpentine in 1886 and 1887 were not ‘respectable’ Londoners but the homeless and hungry.

The fire at Grenfell Tower should be a wake up call – not just for the media but for all of us. History shows us that we learn nothing from history. Arguably the first person to occupy a position of real influence and use it to demand that we treat people fairly and look after those less well off than ourselves was Jesus. He died over 2000 years ago but in ‘Christian’ Britain and globally we have continued to pay lip service to his words ever since, whilst building cathedrals and fighting wars against others in his name at the same time.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Drew Gray (History)

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