In June 2017 the whole country was shocked and convulsed by the news of the fire at Grenfell Tower. The pain and suffering experienced by the people living in the surrounding area and communities was palpable. After the immediate flames had been tackled, and haphazard support-efforts were put in place, it became clear that the fire had done more than destroy the lives of the people involved, it had also illuminated the stark inequalities and social divides that are locked into the core of modern British society.
The London Borough of Kensington is one of the richest places on the planet, with property and businesses valued at many millions, if not billions of pounds. Some of the richest people in the world live in this small corner of London. Yet, along-side this great wealth was a shadow. The Borough of Kensington is also home to some of the UK’s poorest people. People who live a life of perpetual poverty and social exclusion. People who have been repeatedly marginalised from political debate and discussion, and people who have little hope that their concerns might be heard and addressed.
The preventable deaths of seventy-two people, and the gutting of a tower block that had once been home for many more people, has become emblematic of the divide between those in our society with financial power, political power and social status, and those without. The effects of the fire spread far and wide. The grieving and mourning of those living with the consequences of the fire will be felt for many years. The policy consequences, however, and the effect that the fire has had on social planning and public service provision, are only now being comprehended, if at all?
As social housing, employment and immigration policies are reviewed and re-commissioned under the grim symbol of ‘pre- and post-Grenfell’ scrutiny, one area of concern seems to have been left out of the wider public discussion. That is the role of the media.
At the time of the fire, the media descended on North Kensington to tell the story of the devastation that was still happening. Along with the impromptu relief work that was being offered by members of the public in the absence of a coordinated response from many of the local authorities.
The media generated a classic disaster relief narrative. Telling a story at the point of maximum impact for the people involved. Praising the ‘heroic’ rescue and public service efforts, while looking for figures to blame and ridicule for their part in the unfolding calamity. The leader of the council, the Prime Minister, and so on. But the role of the media was also a cause for concern, that should likewise not go unchallenged.
Ishmahil Blagrove encapsulated the views of many in a video that was shared extensively on YouTube. Blagrove was filmed as he berated professional news reporters for their ‘hollow platitudes’ and disdain for the people who make their lives in North Kensington. Blagrove powerfully voiced the concerns of many that the mainstream media are equally culpable in the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Over decades, according to Blagrove, mainstream media and news organisations had sustained and perpetuated a view that the people living in poor communities, and areas of high social deprivation, are somehow inherent failures and authors of their own demise.
According to Blagrove, rather than telling stories of struggle and survival within a dysfunctional society, the mainstream news organisations had lazily stereotyped and victimised people and communities across the country. The plight of people who live in similar circumstances, and who are equally affected by the powerful social forces of exclusion that was captured in the minds of people when they saw the flames rising above Grenfell Tower, are seldom recognised and shown understanding or social concern.
Over many years the dehumanisation of poor people has been a consistent refrain in the British media. Poor people who are feckless, worthless and socially degenerate, we have repeatedly been told. Add to this mix people’s anxiety about race, colour, religion and migration-status, and the narrative of social problematisation by the mainstream media led to a narrowing of social empathy, an increase in social exclusion, and created indifference and resentment in the minds of politicians and policy makers.
In these occasional notes, I want to discuss some of the challenges of addressing issues of social exclusion and social inclusion from the perspective of media and self-representation, as these are understood in the form of community media. Particularly as these can be linked to, and draw-on, community development practices.
I’m going to explore the role of community media as an alternative way of contributing to, and alleviating, social exclusion and social marginalisation. Community media has been written about extensively from the perspective of its social activist and advocacy role (Watson, 2017). However, as circumstances change, we need to keep re-evaluating and re-assessing the role that community media plays in the dynamic interplay of emerging and changing communities, and therefore the role that community media evaluation might play in the social policy and practice mix?
The potential that I see of community media, is as a mechanism for bringing forward some of our otherwise suppressed social anxieties. I’m going to try to capture and share some ideas and thoughts, from my perspective and that of people I’m talking with, about the potentially distinctive role of community media, and the ethos that drives community empowerment through self-representation.
Steve Faragher of Liverpool Community Radio told me recently, that ‘if you want a better media, then you have to make your own media’ (Watson, 2018). I would add that when we think about community media, then we also might want to think about what we become in the process of making our own media, rather than what we get for it. There is a lot we can learn from Ruskin’s ethos that values the human spirit and sense of social contribution, instead of simply calculating how much we can charge for things in a marketplace, the number of hits that we get, or the number of followers that we have.
I’m drawn to the distinction made by Nel Noddings, that we have become proficient at explaining what we care about, but we are less able to identify what we care for (Noddings, 2013). Perhaps it is time that we changed the language of appraisal when we discuss community media, from a technocentric discourse, and instead try to tune-in to the aspirations and deeper aims of our fellow citizens, wherever they are from, and whatever form of social role they represent?
If we had a model of civic-media, community media, and social media that focussed on self-representation and the sharing of stories about our different social experiences, then we might not have been so surprised by the calamity of the Grenfell Tower fire, as the voices expressing concern would have found a proper outlook, and would have been given greater credit for the anxiety they expressed.