Where are the missing? How the tabloids underplayed deaths at Grenfell for their own gain

The British press claim they don't want to speculate on numbers until they have an official body count. That’s laudable. But very responsible reporting has become widespread overnight where it never was before.

Ryan O'Sullivan Matilda Wnek
27 June 2017

‘Singer Lily Allen: 150 dead in Grenfell inferno’

‘Police Commissioner ‘HOPES the death toll won’t reach TRIPLE figures as 600 feared to have been in Grenfell’

‘Locals claiming 100 bodies taken to ONE hospital as protests mount over lack of tenants register’

‘Furious local resident claims Kensington & Chelsea Council will be paying for FIVE HUNDRED FUNERALS’ 

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Lily Allen talks to Channel 4. Youtube. Fair use.These headlines would sell more papers than anything any British news editor has printed so far. If Lily Allen claims a fireman told her the death toll is three times the government’s figure, it doesn’t mean it’s the truth. But it does mean the most incredible front page splash the British tabloids have had in a long time.

But these aren’t the headlines in The Mail, The Sun, or The Times this week. Why not? The profit-seeking ‘run it now and pay the legal bills afterwards’ tabloid media to which we’ve grown accustomed are now not printing the headlines that would sell the most papers. This needs some attention.

The press claim they don't want to speculate on numbers until they have an official body count. That’s laudable. But very responsible reporting has become widespread overnight where it never was before. Suddenly, and quite miraculously, the corporately-owned media no longer seem interested in selling papers and turning a profit. Shareholders must be scratching their heads.

If the tragedy at Grenfell could be spun a different way (imagine if the fires were caused by a plane flying into the building) The Mail, The Sun, The Times and plenty of others would be speculating. They’d be looking for an interview with the witness or relative claiming the highest numbers, and they would print that – in quotation marks if their lawyers told them to.

The headlines after 9/11 are a good example: “Hundreds of Britons among the dead” went The Mail two days after (in fact the number was much lower); ‘Hundreds of Britons dead’ was The Telegraph’s, The Sun ran with, “They Must Have Killed Thousands”, and The Times, “Death Toll of Thousands and Hundreds of Burn Victims Feared”. Both headlines were published the day after the attack and long before a coroner’s report came out. If Grenfell could be spun differently, the incredible, stomach-turning interview in which local resident DJ Isla estimates the need for 500 funerals, would be the feed-in to every Sky News report.

The police are releasing information gradually because their job is public order, and they know that reasonable people may struggle to articulate their rage non-violently when they learn of the extent of this avoidable atrocity. But the job of the press isn't to be the mouthpiece of police. The job of the press is to sell papers and – in theory at least – get to the bottom of things.

These investigations aren’t being done. Where is the journalists’ demand for a register of tenants to help with estimates? Where are the floorplans of the building dug out from the archives to tell us how many flats there actually were? The Telegraph is calling Grenfell twenty-four storeys and The Mail is saying twenty-seven – at six flats a floor that’s a difference of eighteen households. How can there still be a discrepancy about these numbers?

A normal, profit-seeking tabloid would get that tenants register, call the hotels around West London to find out how many have been re-housed, stalk the hospitals to find out how many had been admitted, and print whatever the difference between the two figures was. Not to mention pack their reports with harrowing eye-witness testimony, which has been eerily, chillingly absent from most news reports and should fill us with dread about the reality of how many people actually escaped to tell their tale.  

What we’re seeing here is capitalism glitching. Corporations have become wealthy enough that they no longer need to make money as a singular priority. The Sun doesn't need to sell more papers than The Times anymore, because the same person owns both. In the coverage of Grenfell, we’re seeing corporations giving up on short-term profit and competitive advantage over their rivals in favour of consolidating their power in the long term. They can afford to wait.

What are they waiting for? Not the truth – not the exact number of dead forensically verified by the coroner. They are waiting for a truth that will not be so challenging to their power or the status quo. Right now, people directly impacted by Grenfell are pointing the finger at capitalism and its advocates: Conservatives, landlords, and the millionaires who clad buildings full of poor people in flammable plastic to save £5000 – and, of course, the press.

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Right now, the people's account is winning while the press cast around for a more neutralising narrative, equivalent to the “drunk football hooligans’’ made up by The Sun to distract from policing and engineering mistakes that led to 96 deaths at Hillsborough in 1989. The Mail attempts to scapegoat the individual whose fridge exploded. Twitter. Fair use. Their efforts are pitiful. The Mail has tried to point the finger at 'green targets' (riveting stuff – I’m sure they expected that to fly off the shelves), at ‘EU regulations’ (nope, Germany has managed to ban the same cladding material used here), and even a grim attempt to ignite a scapegoating of the individual whose faulty fridge is supposed to have started the fire.

All of these are substantially less newsworthy than what people on the ground are saying happened, but we are not seeing the usual rush to find the most shocking narrative. We are seeing corporate media stand back in the hope that a narrative more amenable to their long-term interests – as capitalists, as landlords, and individuals – will emerge.

But another narrative will not emerge. It is becoming possible that more than 150 people – perhaps 200, 300, have burned to death as a direct result of a deregulated housing market and corporate greed. It is beyond sensationalism, and the corporate media are not even trying. The inequality exposed by this tragedy must be getting to them; it may finally be too dangerous to stoke a sense of injustice in this politically volatile environment, lest it land too close to home.

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