News in a disconnected world

Two days ago, a building in South Mumbai collapsed, killing 23 people and trapping at least 37 others in rubble. Four years earlier, city officials deemed the 100-year-old structure unsafe and asked a private trust to move residents out so that renovations could begin. Instead, many remained because rents in other parts of the city were too high. For similar reasons hundreds of other poor families live within structurally compromised buildings throughout Mumbai. At least two other buildings have collapsed in the city in this month alone. In July a similar collapse killed 17 people. City officials say recent flooding may have contributed to the latest incident.

When a fire claimed 80 lives at the Grenfell Tower in London this June, news coverage focused on cost-cutting measures by the management authority that oversaw the property, decisions that swathed the tower block with substandard fireproof cladding, effectively turning it into a death-trap.

After Googling the name of the building, many journalists noticed a blog by the “Grenfell Action Group” (GAG)) which had posted at least 10 warnings about the tower’s poor fire and safety standards in the four years before the fire. In November 2016, for example, the GAG wrote that it had “reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life … will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation [KCTMO – the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which oversees some 10,000 properties on behalf of the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council].”

What connects these incidents – and hundreds of other potential disasters that could easily be averted – is the failure of local authorities to enforce regulations and insist on the maintenance of standards. When these lapses end in tragedy hindsight is useless unless it spurs reforms. The failure to press for such reforms often lies with media organizations that chase newer stories instead of pressing for accountability. If the media surrenders this responsibility, it cannot subsequently act surprised when local authorities shirk the blame. With respect to Grenfell, for instance, government driven reform appears unlikely. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot has noted, the public inquiry was established with a narrow focus that would not allow it to “examine a governing ideology that sees torching public protections as a sacred duty.” But until this is done, Monbiot argues, similar catastrophes cannot be prevented.

Last month, speaking to an influential audience at the James MacTaggart Memorial lecture, the veteran British journalist Jon Snow spoke movingly about his disconnection from the public whose interests he is meant to defend. Citing recent failures to gauge popular sentiment in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, Snow then turned to the issue of the media’s moral lapses with Grenfell Tower. In the context of an “increasingly fractured” society, Snow accused his profession of having become too comfortable with its own privilege, of having “little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.” He added that the “completely man-made” disaster had taught him how dangerous this disconnection could be. He called the previous warnings “a chronicle of death foretold” and asked: “Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact?”

Snow’s lecture argues that “humanity needs to match the dramatic growth of social media with a rebirth of social mobility.” To illustrate this point he told the story of Firdows Kedir “a remarkably poised hijab-wearing twelve-year-old from West London” who had won a debate contest organized by a local charity in April of this year. Snow was a judge of the competition, along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Snow recalled that Kedir was confident and “used language beautifully.” After the judges chose her as the winner: “Bill Gates grasped her hand and gave her the award.” Two months later, she died, along with her entire family, on the 22nd floor of the Grenfell tower block.

Musing on what Kedir might have become after being singled out in this way, Snow warned his audience not to accept media that casually write off swathes of people as “nameless migrants, scroungers, illegals and the rest.”  Speaking warily of the informational duopoly enjoyed by Facebook and Google and the near disappearance of robust local news that it has caused, Snow warns that “it will take the effort of every single one of us – the producers, the journalists, the platforms, the politicians and the public – to reconnect our disconnected world.” Snow also points out that the Syrian War, despite being “the most photographed, recorded, streamed in human history” is one in which all the main actors have proceeded with “obvious impunity.” His point is well made. Information alone cannot save us; collectively we must also learn to exercise the eternal vigilance that is the proverbial price of liberty.

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