As I struggled to pick my way through the nearly 60,000 words of Andrew O’Hagan’s essay ‘The Tower’ I was struck by the deference he invariably displayed towards the councillors, council officers and KCTMO staff he had interviewed and whose integrity he never questioned and seemed instead to accept uncritically. By contrast he displayed an attitude of barely concealed disdain, and at times of naked contempt, for the local activist groups he encountered and who had dared for years to pit their wits against the all powerful RBKC Council (and its proxy the KCTMO) with their well practiced spin doctors and in-house legal team. For me this reveals more about O’Hagan’s bigotry and snobbery than it does about the traumatised community whose trust he had inveigled and, in my opinion, shamelessly betrayed.
The first clear example I found in O’Hagan’s essay of his jaundiced view of Grenfell activists is his criticism of Grenfell United;
“Several of the residents we spoke to”, he writes, “were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the councIl”.
Those few lines alone seem to me to ooze sarcasm, but he goes on to describe Grenfell United as ‘secretive, exclusive (and) the kind of group that wants to know you’re on its side before it will answer your questions’. Grenfell United are highly regarded in the local community and are, in our view, completely undeserving of such sarcasm. We would certainly not describe them as secretive and we believe they are exclusive only because they represent the most tramatised of the Grenfell community and consider it a priority to protect (as far as possible) their grieving and often emotionally fragile members from the intrusive probing of the media and, dare I say it, from the likes of O’Hagan himself who clearly inhabits his own self serving sharkpool. In the year since the tragedy many would agree that Grenfell United have grown to become perhaps the most dignified and effective of the Grenfell pressure groups.
His next target is, of course, the Grenfell Action Group, of which both myself and Edward Daffarn are founder members. We collaborated closely together on every blog we posted until the night of the fire when Ed lost his home and everything he owned and narrowly escaped with his life.
O’Hagan describes us as ‘committed local agitators’ who ‘hate the Tory council and believe every move it makes stinks of corruption’. Obviously we would prefer to be called ‘activists’ rather than ‘agitators’ and would strongly object to the obvious slur intended by O’Hagan’s choice of words. I have no doubt that his intention here is to taint our reputation by implying that we are ‘bad actors’ and lack integrity and legitimacy. We take great offence at this implication, with which we are well familiar, having been similarly stigmatized by senior councillors on numerous occasions. However we are not the least surprised that O’Hagan chooses to side with the Council against us, as he invariably does throughout his essay, showing clear signs of the prejududice and bigotry we have come to expect from the privileged property owning class of what we call ‘The Rotten Borough’.
He also, incidentally, claims we ‘had never been very popular on the estate and had struggled to get anybody to pay attention to us’. Meanwhile, in the very same paragraph, he contradicts this statement by claiming to have spoken to ‘many tenants who respected the work of the action group and who contributed to (its) efforts.’ Such internal contradictions within his own narrative simply suggest to us that O’Hagan’s work is sloppy and far more poorly researched than he claims.
In any case he continues his partisan rant against us with the following ;
“Over five years, the action group complained about noise, double-glazing, air pollution, housing policy, gentrification, the fate of a local college, local trees, a cinema and a library, some Labour councillors, all Tory councillors, asbestos, Holland Park Opera, and dozens of other things they didn’t like.”
“In any event, whatever the arguments, the members of the Grenfell Action Group, who would come to be seen as the wise men and women of the disaster, had a long history of objecting to the council and its representatives. The objections took the form, first, of argument and blog postings and emails, later of denunciations in the media. What the group had to say would be worrying in any context, but now, retrospectively, it seems devastating, like deaths foretold. And the thing about warnings is that, even if they’re not totally on the nose, they create a defining context.”
He continues “…something strange began to happen. A feeling turned into a slogan, and suddenly the ‘narrative’ was in place: the council was on a mission to neglect. At one level, the narrative was connected with something both the public and the media wanted: a story of our austere times, a totemic unfairness myth.”
A little later he claims to have asked the council’s severest critics for evidence to back their claims. He refers to what he calls one of the Grenfell Action Group ‘stalwarts’ who allegedly wrote to him but, according to O’Hagan, this unnamed individual found it difficult to supply evidence to support his allegations;
“His communications were colourful and provocative, damning and suggestive, but each of them depended on one’s mind already being made up before one considered what he supplied as ‘evidence’.”
These suggestions of a lack of credible evidence, or of any evidence at all, produced by local residents (and particularly by local activists) are clearly designed to undermine and invalidate his local interviewees. Similar claims are repeated at numerous points throughout the essay and form a crucial part of his defence of, and deference to, the local authorities (both RBKC and KCTMO) whose culture of negligence is widely believed in the community (and beyond) to be a fundamental cause of the Grenfell disaster and, contrary to O’Hagan’s claims, there is abundant evidence to support this common view.
Nonetheless O’Hagan’s rant continues;
‘Evidence’ for true believers gathers in the space between assertions. It grows there, whispering ‘everybody knows,’ as if moral arithmetic were just a matter of stringing random bits of ugliness together and calling it a case.”
“I met with countless activists, (he claims) and recorded what they said, checking it as I did with every witness. They had loud voices and good causes but what they didn’t have was facts. I have quoted from their blogs and referred to their accusations, but I had trouble substantiating them. At times they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding, but when I tried to follow them up, I couldn’t prove them right.”
His description of Lancaster West residents ‘…throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding’ is especially odious and deserving of the severest of criticism. It is so coarse an so blatantly bigoted that it is beneath contempt. I consider this comment to be the most disgusting and reprehensible of slurs on the people of the Grenfell community some of whom, I would accept, may have struggled, when pressed, to recall the detail of evidence they had previously seen. But this doesn’t mean that such evidence doesn’t exist or that they hadn’t seen it, and nor does it give the brat O’Hagan licence to insult and denigrate them in such contemptuous and offensive terms.
Contrary to O’Hagan’s bigoted, prejudiced and poorly researched doggerel, which I have quoted at length, the Grenfell Action Group has always sourced and researched carefully and meticulously all our correspondence with RBKC and KCTMO and every blog post we have published (certainly every blog since the summer of 2013 when we were falsely accused of defamation by RBKC). I can say this with complete confidence because it was I who did much of the forensic work, searching out and unpicking official documents which are often complex and lengthy and written in opaque and sometimes ambiguous jargon.
When we requested documents, the existence of which was known to us, but which had not been published on the Council website, our requests were generaly refused. This necessitated embarking on a lengthy process of appealing to the Information Commissioners Office seeking provision of the requested material under the Freedom of Information Act. We did this on perhaps a dozen occasions and virtually all our appeals were upheld, indicating to us that senior RBKC staff, including RBKC legal staff, had no qualms about misusing the very few exemptions allowed under the Act by witholding information, for their own ulterior motives, which they had no right to withold.
“For many, the fire gave the opportunity to say boldly – with new, terrible evidence – what they’d always been trying to say about the Tories. But after nearly a year’s work and any number of moles in every committee and in every department (many of them Labour-supporting), and after scrutinising volumes of minutes and looking at hundreds of documents, I could find nothing to support the view that these councillors were corrupt or were trying to harm residents. Yes, they often behaved like Tories, and, yes, they very often pursued housing policies popular with people affiliated to the Tories and New Labour. For this there is a mass of interesting evidence”
In this latter paragraph he completely misses the point. He concedes that;
“…they often behaved like Tories, and…very often pursued housing policies popular with people affiliated to the Tories and New Labour. For this there is a mass of interesting evidence”
Astonishingly, it would seem that someone neglected to inform O’Hagan, or perhaps he is just too pig-ignorant and bigoted to realise, that Tory policies are the problem that has bedevilled the lower paid for years – involving deep cuts to essential services delivered with a callous indifference to their effects on the less wealthy inhabitants of the country. These include direct cuts, as well as insidious underfunding, of education, housing, youth and nursery services, care in the community and other vital social services – including deep cuts to fire service funding. Furthermore tory indifference and lack of empathy with the daily struggles of those on limited incomes is the very reason they are loathed and feared in equal measure by the residents of social housing estates, especially the lower paid who are likely to find themselves dependant on food banks for their very survival.
I think at this point it behoves me to provide some evidence to discount O’Hagan’s claims that he searched high and low, but couldn’t find, evidence to support the allegations of negligence, complacency, institutional indifference, malfeasance and incompetence levelled at the Council and the KCTMO from all sides within the Lancaster West community, and particularly in the blogs containing such allegations. The Grenfell Action Group Blog, which I represent, is indisputably the foremost among these blogs and the one that has been quoted most often in the world media following the atrocity at Grenfell Tower. In the interests of brevity the evidence I will present will not be exhaustive but I have chosen what I consider to be two good examples of well sourced and well researched material that we have presented. The first is a letter which I drafted and sent by email to the Chair of the RBKC Public Realm Scrutiny Committee in May 2011 arguing against a Key Decision (scheduled at the time for approval) to progress plans to site the proposed new Kensington Academy at Lancaster Green, in very close proximity to Grenfell Tower. A copy of this letter can be downloaded via the following link;
KALC SPD Appeal May 2011
To continue, at one point in his essay O’Hagan refers to a threat of legal action by the Council against the Grenfell Action Group to which he adds the comment ‘some thought their blog posts were libellous’. Had he carefully researched the Grenfell Action Group blog, as he claimed to have done, he would have discovered that this whole episode was fully documented in a series of blogs posted in July and August 2013 that I usually refer to as the ‘Bambi’ blogs, because they began with a blog I posted called ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ I received the first solicitor’s letter shortly after I had posted that first ‘Bambi’ blog. However, the controversy that led to these attempts to intimidate and silence us can be traced back to a blog on 5th July entitled ‘Something Rotten – The EMB Crisis’;
Who Killed Bambi (original).pdf
Two solictors letters were addressed to me personally at my home address. They were signed by Vimal Sarna, a senior solicitor at RBKC. The first letter is reproduced in the ‘Flying Mallet’ blog and implies, rather than threatens, that legal action for defamation might follow unless I removed the offending blog(s) immediately. My response is published in the GAG blog entitled ‘An Open Letter to RBKC Legal Services’.
A second and more detailed letter which I had demanded from Ms Sarna followed. This can be downloaded via a hyperlink in the blog ‘Who Killed Bambi – Censored’. At this point I decided to remove the ‘offending‘ blog temporarily while I rewrote it with hyperlinks added to a number of documents on which my allegations against senior council officers were based. These included a series of what I consider to be incriminating internal RBKC email threads and invoices.
I provided conclusive evidence that I had defamed no-one in the last blog of the series entitled ‘Who Killed Bambi – Revised and Expanded ‘ which contained multiple hyperlinks to the documents (all from the RBKC archives) on which my original allegations were based. Many of these documents had been supplied to me by RBKC in response to Freedom of Information requests and together they constituted proof that there was nothing defamatory in the blogs in question. I would strongly recommend that the LRB and Mr O’Hagan study this series of blogs and note that the RBKC legal team issued no further response and never again accused either me or the Grenfell Action Group of defamation or threatened us with legal action on any grounds.
The ‘Bambi’ blogs can be accessed via the following hyperlinks;
I have also included a hyperlink to a letter I received in 2010 from Moyra McGarvey, Head of Internal Audit and Risk Management at RBKC. This letter was the final response to a formal complaint I had earlier made against the senior council and TMO officers I later accused again in the ‘Bambi’ blogs. This letter vindicated me by confirming that the officers involved had behaved without integrity and had deliberately disrespected the EMB board and EMB constitution. However, the McGarvey letter only acknowledged what she called ‘a number of administrative failings’ and claimed that there had been no ciminality and no criminal intent by these officers, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
I considered key elements of McGarvey’s conclusions to be a disingenuous and unacceptable travesty of what had actually happened and I never forgot the experience. It indicated to me that the Council complaints system was a sham lacking a true moral compass at all levels and that lodging formal complaints against councillors or council officers was a futile exercise unlikely ever to reveal the full truth and apportion blame and sanctions for professional misconduct where appropriate. For this reason I decided to revisit the whole sordid episode by blogging it in 2013 at a time when I had recently acquired evidence of fraudulent behaviour and misconduct in office by the then Chair of the EMB. The complaint against him was vindicated by a RBKC investigation, the findings of which were (briefly) recorded in EMB Minutes dated 16th October 2012. The EMB perversely decided not to sanction the Chair whose guilt had been proven by the listing of his step-daughter’s company at the Baseline Studios address on the Companies House website – the only dissenting voice being that of Ed Daffarn who had sat on the EMB briefly at the time. The earlier accusations I had made against senior council and TMO officers in 2010 were fully vindicated in the final ‘Bambi’ blog. The EMB minutes and the decision letter I received from Ms McGarvey can be downloaded via the following links;
EMB Minutes 16th October 2012
Mc Garvey Report December 2010.pdf
Another one of O’Hagan’s oft’ repeated mantras concerns claims by local residents that the council had been deliberately running the estate down – pursuing an unofficial policy of neglect – for a number of years – to justify the largescale regeneration they had long been planning. He dismisses this as another falsehood but his claim is easily disproven.
One bright spark sent a Freedom of Information request to RBKC on 16 June 2017 seeking the total rental and service charge income gleaned from Grenfell Tower during the previous six years versus expenditure on repairs and maintenance for the same period, including responsive repairs, major works, cyclical maintenance, and technical services. On 25 July he got the information he had asked for.It showed that the Council had taken a total of £4,687,669.21 in rents and service charges over the period in question and spent a mere £551,081.16 on repairs and maintenance etc. By my reckoning that equates to a grand total of £250 a week spent on repairs etc for a period of six years. How does that grab you Andrew? Would you agree that it’s strongly suggestive of neglect? Of course it’s not likely that a ‘policy of neglect’ was ever documented. Far nore likely this was all done on the downlow.
Meanwhile O’Hagan continues to indulge his his personal prejudices in a lengthy section in which he attempts to exonerate the council for its inadequate response following the fire. This is based entirely on interviews with councillors and council workers and much of it (at least 20 pages) is devoted to hugely flattering profile interviews with former Council Leader Nick Paget-Brown and former Cabinet Member for Housing Property and Regeneration, the despised Rock Feilding-Mellen. O’Hagan clearly has a soft spot for Feilding-Mellen and appears to believe that the opprobrium heaped on him is entirely unjustified, but in taking this position he appears to have forgotten (or ignored) one of the fundamental principles of journalism – that of holding power to account.
He also seems blissfully unaware that the stink surrounding Feilding-Mellen predates the Grenfell disaster by a number of years and arose from a combination of his meteoric rise to power at RBKC, the ruthlesssly autocratic style in which he exercised power and his obsession with the ‘regeneration’ of a huge swathe of the Notting Barns area, beginning with the Silchester Estate and with Lancaster West almost certainly next in line. However, in attempting to justify himself and his prejudices O’Hagan makes the mistake of quoting conservative councillor Catherine Faulks who describes Feiding-Mellen’s ambitions thus;
‘There was definitely a change that he was focusing on, on working young people being able to live in RBKC, because they simply can’t afford to live here, or anywhere near here. The young doctors, young professionals, [with] nowhere for them to live … I know that was one of his aspirations, to be able to provide housing for this group of young professional people.’
O’Hagan, it would seem, has completely failed to understand how threatening all this disruption, dislocation and destruction of communities must be to those living in social rented housing on large council estates earmarked for so-called ‘regeneration’, perhaps because he is himself a member of the privileged property owning class and is incapable of the empathy needed to appreciate the powerlessness and vulnerability of the ‘underclass ‘ (as he once described us) who stand to lose so much under the tory policy of demolishing social housing estates in order to rebuild in a manner that accommodates a higher population density, with most of the new properties earmarked for private sale, and only a council promise, usually broken by the private developers brought on board, to reprovide an arbitrary quota of social rented housing.
In April this year, several weeks before O’Hagan’s essay was published, evidence emerged in the form of a leaked BRE draft report commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, which indicated that the Grenfell Tower fire had been caused in large part by a badly botched refurbishment sponsored by RBKC and their agents the KCTMO. O’Hagan took no notice and continued to indulge his personal prejudices – although it has to be said that he had so often disrespected and misrepresented the validity of the evidence and opinions he had been offered by local residents (misrepresentations that were scattered liberally throughout the 60,000 word essay) that it would have been impossible for him to ‘tweak’ and would probably have required a complete rewrite
Shortly after the publication of his essay in the LRB the evidential hearings began at the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster. Almost immediately damning opening statements were published from fire safety experts commissioned to investigate the causes of the fire. They included descriptions of serious fire safety breaches that included more than 100 non-compliant fire doors, a fire fighting lift that didn’t work, a ‘stay put’ policy that totally failed and thick black smoke that prevented firefighters from using lobbies as a bridgehead or search base and would have prevented residents from escaping to safety. In what became a litany of serious flaws, the inquiry heard how dry risers intended to channel pressurised water for fire fighting to the upper floors of the building (where most people had died) failed to work properly and a system for extracting smoke from lobby areas on each floor did not work either and did not meet building regulations.
Fire safety expert Dr Barbara Lane concluded there was ‘a culture of non-compliance’ at the tower. She was equally damning about the cladding that was fitted as part of the refurbishment, which she said was “non-compliant with the functional requirement of the building regulations”.
“I have found no evidence yet” she said, “that any member of the design team or the construction ascertained the fire performance of the rainscreen cladding system materials, nor understood how the assembly performed in fire….I have found no evidence that building control were either informed or understood how the assembly would perform in a fire….Further, I have found no evidence that the [tenant management organisation] risk assessment recorded the fire performance of the rainscreen cladding system, nor have I found evidence that the LFB risk assessment recorded the fire performance of the rainscreen cladding.”
Despite the abundance of evidence now available that contradicts the entire tenor of O’Hagan’s essay it is still featured prominently on the LRB website, a ‘dodgy dossier’ in which he uses all manner of cheap tricks and cheap shots to undermine and delegitimise the understandably cynical comments of the many local residents he interviewed. In this work of fiction that masquerades as fact O’Hagan includes the following opinion;
“The firefighting operation at Grenfell was a huge and dramatic failure, though nobody wanted to say so. The national government’s role was cynical and opportunistic from the start, though everyone missed this in the rush to name local culprits. And journalism, hour by hour and day by day, showed by its feasting on half-baked items that it had lost the power to treat reality fairly. You saw it everywhere. Channel 4 News, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Sky News, the New York Times: from the middle of that night, they began to turn the fire into the story they wanted it to be. Reality wasn’t good enough, the tragedy wasn’t bad enough, it had to be augmented, it had to be blown up, facts couldn’t be gleaned quickly enough, and stories went without investigation, research, tact or even checking. In a world of perpetual commentary in which everyone and anyone is allowed their own facts, accusation stands as evidence.”
A little further on he continues;
“I suspect that in North Kensington there is a deeply founded suspicion, among a small vocal group – a group that had lived with a Tory council for ever and were sick of it – that these posh individuals, the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names, their affinity with private development and their expensive educations, were sitting ducks.”
Following the emergence of the expert witness statements quoted above O’Hagan’s deeply flawed essay, should have been retracted by the LRB and a full and sincere apology printed prominently in its place for the benefit of all those impacted by the Grenfell Tower disaster who had been so offended by the O’Hagan essay. So far this hasn’t happened.
IT SHOULD HAPPEN NOW!
Having seen at least one other complaint from one of O’Hagan’s interviewees and read scathing critiques of the O’Hagan essay in other publications I would further suggest that, if the LRB values its literary reputation, it should seriously consider severing all future ties with him. As for the man himself, he may have won several awards for his writing, but the majority were for works of fiction. He should stick with fiction in future and should resist any inclination he might have to try his hand again at writing what he would falsely describe as non-fiction documentary or social commentary.
THE WRITING OF FAIR, BALANCED AND UNPREJUDICED SOCIAL COMMENTARY IS CLEARLY BEYOND HIS NATURE AND ABILITY!