The area around Grenfell Tower is not served by a proper local newspaper. Neither does it seem to have any well-established online local news provision. It is one of the many areas of the UK which is essentially a black spot for dedicated reporting. People died in Grenfell Tower probably because of the type of cladding that was used in the refurbishment but at some point more fundamental causes need to be identified to ensure this kind of catastrophe doesn’t happen again. One of many issues that needs to be addressed is the increasing estrangement of the governed from those who govern them and the disappearance of local news reporting is both a symptom and a cause of this problem.
The Kensington & Chelsea Chronicle was the Trinity Mirror title that covered the area but that has been defunct since 2013. Trinity decided to shutter all their operations at that time not just in Kensington & Chelsea but in the neighbouring boroughs of Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham. At the time these three local authorities were Tory controlled and had entered into a tri-borough arrangement in which certain services were shared including the press office. There had been fraught relationship between Trinity and Hammersmith & Fulham in particular dating back to the time when the Council launched H&F News which was a fully functioning local newspaper covering stories beyond those relating to local government.
With Eric Pickles, who was at the DCLG at the time, very much on side of the local press eventually the two sides came to a modus operandi in which the Council closed their newspaper and Trinity was given a seven year contract which guaranteed them the public notice business of the Council. This arrangement didn’t survive very long as Trinity were unable to generate enough commercial revenue to support the paper and they closed their Hammersmith office. At the same time as doing this they also ceased to publish their titles in Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster.
This resulted in absolute panic at the three local authorities as they were told by the DCLG that they would still have to publish notices in a printed newspaper and the only option was the Evening Standard whose rates would be much higher than they had been paying. If they were forced to use the Standard it would have cost each borough millions. They had to go back to Trinity Mirror cap-in-hand and ask them to provide a solution. This came in the form of ‘The Gazette’ a weekly paid for title which would cover the three boroughs and include all their statutory notices. It is effectively a sub-edition of the Ealing Gazette and doesn’t carry a meaningful amount of local news. It is sold in a number of newsagents throughout the borough and it would probably be a good week for it if its readership reached double figures.
That this arrangement was deemed acceptable shows a contempt for local residents on behalf of both the local authority and central government. The reason that a large amount of Council taxpayers’ money is spent each year on public notices is that they are meant to be kept informed of matters in their borough. The letter of the relevant legislation may not be being broken here but a coach and horses is being driven through the spirit of it and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is allowed to happen because the authorities believe that the more local people know about how they are being ruled the more difficult they will be to rule.
The Gazette is notionally the way that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea fulfils its statutory duty to keep the residents of Grenfell Tower informed of local government matters. The paper is not even available in most local newsagents and I would place a large bet that nearly every Grenfell Tower resident like nearly every borough resident is unaware of its existence.
The problem that The Gazette presents is two-fold. Not only does it cut a line of communication between ruled and rulers but it prevents a proper newspaper setting up in Kensington and Chelsea. An attempt was made to fill the void by an independent newspaper Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster Today. Judging by the promotional video on its web site this started with very laudable ambitions to be a community newspaper and it still seems to be operational but most recent editions seem to be almost entirely made up of syndicated content. Similarly its web site has predominantly non-local news and the cursory coverage of the massive news event on its doorstep seems to indicate it doesn’t currently do active local journalism. It would, however, have been clearly in the public interest of the residents of Kensington & Chelsea if this newspaper or one similar could have at least the prospect of being used by the Council for its public notices. My understanding is that the arrangement with Trinity is on the basis that all three Councils continue to use The Gazette making it impractical for one of the boroughs to decide they wish to support an alternative title. Thus there is a stranglehold on what would be the principle source of revenue for anyone seeking to provide a proper newspaper for the area.
There has also been no corresponding rise in online local news coverage to fill the vacuum. Trinity continue to notionally cover the North Kensington area through their GetWestLondon site but don’t seem to have published much other relevant to this part of London in recent months than Met Police press releases. The residents of Grenfell Tower could have literally looked into the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham where sites published by the online only group Neighbour Net provide a tolerable standard of local reporting but they generally have stuck quite rigidly to specific geographic areas so don’t cover Kensington & Chelsea even though we are talking a distance of a few hundred yards geographically.
The lack of a functioning local media meant that the complaints of the Grenfell Action Group never reached a wider audience. It is now destined to become one of the most famous and widely read blogs in UK internet history but only after its dire warnings went unheeded. Until last week that blog probably wasn’t read by most people in Grenfell Tower let alone the rest of the world. Anyone who has worked in local news reporting will tell you that residents’ groups always engage in hyperbole when they want something done. Children will definitely die if the crossing they want put in is denied to them. However, sceptical the reporter is about these claims they are gold dust for providing strong stories. If there had been a local newspaper or community news site for North Kensington they would almost have certainly have published headlines based on the Action Group’s dire warnings about fire safety.
It cannot be claimed however that had this happened something would have been done to have saved the residents. If you read the Grenfell Action Group blog there is lots about fire safety concerns but nothing specifically about the material used for cladding which is hardly surprising. Where local media would have come into play here is that Councillors and Council Officers would have been aware that the complaints of the residents were reaching a wider audience and that would have been an extra incentive to take them seriously. Whether the different attitude from the local authority this would have engendered would have been sufficient to alter the chain of events that led to the fire we will never know. What we do know is that lack of accountability leads to bad government and a local press increases accountability.
Theresa May will keep telling us that she and her Government are listening to local people. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will say that they have always listened to the concerns of residents. However, without a functioning independent media a key channel of communication has been lost. Governments and Councils are most likely to do things they would otherwise be unwilling to do when they are embarrassed and local newspapers have the greatest capacity to cause them embarrassment. The community of North Kensington needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and a local media that gave them a voice would be an easy and quick win in this endeavour.
This could actually be achieved without a penny of extra public money being spent. All it would require is for the DCLG to tell local authorities that zombie newspaper arrangements like that used for The Gazette are no longer acceptable. No new legislation would be required as the law clearly intends that public notices be published in something that is providing proper local news and is read by local people. If the DCLG instructed Councils that their expectation is that public notices had to be placed in local newspapers that could demonstrate a minimum level of news coverage and a minimum level of readership overnight you would create a significant incentive for investment in local journalism. If the DCLG also said that they believe the law places more emphasis on ‘news’ rather than ‘paper’ in determining which publications can be used, the door could be opened to digital publishers including Trinity Mirror themselves who would be forced to beef up their online reporting if they wanted to keep the significant amount of money they get from these authorities. Digital would probably work better in a borough like Kensington & Chelsea where local authority tower blocks are mixed with Notting Hill and South Kensington mansion blocks all of which are fiendishly difficult to deliver a newspaper to.
A public enquiry and perhaps even a Royal Commission will look into the aftermath of this month’s tragic events and it will take years for their recommendations and practical solutions to take effect therefore a chance to make North Kensington a more cohesive place quickly, easily and cheaply should not be passed up. My concern would be that a Government rocking from Brexit, their thin majority, the anger over Grenfell, the wave of terror attacks and all the other day to day concerns will be too shell-shocked to do anything imaginative and unconventional to make people’s lives better.