“Revealed: fire spread linked to panels,” ran the headline and under it the intro: “Councils have been warned over the use of insulation panels on high-rise buildings, after tests revealed they ‘likely’ caused a devastating fire to rip through a tower block.”
At first glance, you might guess that perhaps ran sometime during the summer in the weeks following the Grenfell fire disaster on the 14th June. Sure enough, it would be a strong story on the day or two following Grenfell, but the words actually come from the front page of Inside Housing, dated 13 April. That’s two months before Grenfell and the London tower block fire it refers to was actually Shepherd’s Court in the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which itself was reminiscent of an earlier tragic fire at Lakanal House, which killed six people in 2009. That disaster too was also followed up by Inside Housing in a series of exclusive investigations revealing how the lessons were not being properly learnt and acted upon. It is disturbing to think that last summer’s fire might have somehow been avoided if more people in power had taken more notice.
The results of investigations into these previous council block fires explain why media attention quickly turned to the external cladding panels on the morning of the 15th June last summer. Yet it had taken a Freedom of Information request from Inside Housing reporter Pete Apps to uncover a secret report which showed the external insulation panels on Shepherd’s Court had allowed the flames to spread upwards. It seems wrong that it should have to take an FOI act to make public a report whose dissemination must surely be in the public interest.
After Grenfell, while the rest of the media caught up with the cladding issue, Inside Housing moved on to further problems with the fire risk in tower blocks. Sophie Barnes trawled through hundreds of fire risk assessments, also prised form councils under FOI requests, and found many had problems with fire doors, emergency lighting, or ventilation in escape routes.
Politics can be problematic for the trade press whose audiences are not defined by allegiance in the way newspapers tend to be. Trade magazines can be overly proud of their interviews with politicians; they are pleased to get the opportunity because they don’t take it for granted like the national media but they don’t always reveal very much. The Conservatives’ pledge on social housing before the election surprised the housing sector but Inside Housing got an admission from Gavin Barwell that their ‘social housing’ actually referred to ‘affordable rented’ homes – a crucial difference in the level of rent.
There are plenty more examples from these and other journalists on Inside Housing, which has been lifting the lid on life and death issues for years before Grenfell. Editor Emma Maier recently won the trade and professional category at the British Society of Magazine Editors Awards and she and her team swept the board at last year’s Independent Building Press Awards.
I admire so many magazines for different reasons, from the cool, minimalist look of the best design and architecture magazines and the quirkiness of the new breed of independent magazines, to the spot-on coverlines of the mass market weeklies or the viral listicles of the new kids on the digital block. In investigative journalism, though, there is something even more to admire because it can really change things for the better. Sadly, it can be one of the first things to suffer when the cutbacks come. Under cost and revenue pressures, it’s tempting just to fill the magazine or website with ‘something else’. Yet it’s particularly important for trade or professional brands, who are in a good position, with both contacts and readers, to produce investigations that lift the lid on things that really matter. They can go deeper into subjects than other parts of the media can or want to. Some of them do a great job of exposing important scandals, changing legislation, changing management, and maybe even saving lives - even if they rarely get proper credit for it.
There are so many clichés about what makes good journalism. “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations,” is often attributed or misattributed to George Orwell, that enemy of the cliché. ‘Speak truth unto power’ can perhaps sound overly grand for the trade that is journalism but it’s at least an admirable aspiration and one that Inside Housing seems to keep in mind.
So, next time you hear someone remarking that no one, least of all the media, ever called out the conditions and the failings that led to the tragedy that was the Grenfell fire, you can correct them. They were just looking at the wrong media. At least one magazine was on the case and it was speaking truth unto power. The terrible shame is that those in power were not listening as they should.