The Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry – the importance of live-streams

On the importance of the public being able to see senior managers and executives held to account, and why the format of follow-up questions needs to be extended to more areas of politics

“How is that even possible?!?” The reaction of one of the fire fighters heading straight towards the towering inferno of Grenfell Tower.

It has been over three years since the fire which was the worst residential fire in the UK since the Second World War. It’s one of the reasons why as a historian I believe it is important to recall the footage and the news reports from the time which reflect the shock and raw emotions following the fire and all those that died untimely deaths. The names of the 72 people that died in the fire are listed by Inquest. This is why the Prime Minister authorised the establishment of a public inquiry under The Inquries Act 2005. This matters because the Act contains a series of legal requirements of such inquiries, and furthermore includes the creation of new offences in law, which I cover further down.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry

The index of videos is here. Details and documents of and from the official Grenfell Inquiry on the horrific fire of Grenfell Tower are at https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/about. This clip from journalist Rags Martel summarises some of the extraordinary footage from this week.

“I binned all of them except the last one.” Claire Williams, former project manager of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to the Grenfell Inquiry under cross examination from Richard Millett QC, Lead Counsel for the Inquiry over what happened to her written notes from the time.

This is a very significant piece of testimony from a key witness. This was on the back of an astonishing discovery which Mr Millett QC begins with – and which is worth listening to in full from the start of the video stream here of the morning session of 19th October 2020. Clearly Mr Millett QC is absolutely furious. Note his comments about the legal representatives of the KCTMO, the legal firm Kennedys.

The Metropolitan Police are now examining whether any offences were committed regarding the evidence given by Ms Williams to the Inquiry. As far as the Inquiries Act 2005 is concerned, it is Section 35 that appears to be the most relevant – the section on offences. In particular S35(3).

(3)A person is guilty of an offence if during the course of an inquiry—

(a)he intentionally suppresses or conceals a document that is, and that he knows or believes to be, a relevant document, or

(b)he intentionally alters or destroys any such document.

For the purposes of this subsection a document is a “relevant document” if it is likely that the inquiry panel would (if aware of its existence) wish to be provided with it.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2005/12/section/35

So the legislation indicates that one of the particular lines of inquiry will be intent.

Beyond that, I’m not going to comment because of the continued proceedings of the inquiry and a police investigation.

Other relevant documents include the Grenfell Action Group blog from 2012 to 2019, and the deposited papers at Companies House of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation. The key documents in the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry are here.

“Can’t we see government ministers cross-examined like this?”

If only! Yet the current administration is extremely reluctant to put ministers up for interview – noting that their boycott of Good Morning Britain, one of the most watched breakfast time television shows, along with Channel 4 News, and Newsnight, speaks volumes.

Even with the furore over the treatment of Greater Manchester led to a now-deleted post calling for the PM to go.

…inevitably picked up by their political opponents, in this case the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

The importance of the live-streams

I’m one of those [insert name of insult] people who watches Parliament TV. On catchup. Hey, we’ve got a global pandemic so I don’t get out much! Part of the challenge of such streams is pinning down the speeches and interventions that are relevant to specific audiences. Take the takeover of ARM Holdings down the road from me, which the MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner led a debate on in the House of Commons.

The only people who watch Parliament TV even more regularly are paid to do so – all too often for lobbyists and political consultancies. It’s a shame that they don’t volunteer their findings to local news organisations where their local MPs are speaking. Furthermore there is much to be said about a more powerful, more independent Parliamentary civil service providing this service as a matter of course for every MP in every constituency. At the moment, it’s voluntary groups such as They Work For You that do this with the written record and on a shoestring budget as part of the wonderful MySociety organisation. Any wealthy person wanting to improve the state of UK politics and democracy may want to provide My Society with a regular income over an extended period of time.

The importance of being able to ask successive follow-up questions

One of the reasons why Mr Millett QC’s questioning makes for compelling viewing is his ability to ask successive questions of witnesses. We rarely see this in the House of Commons – normally only the Leader of the Opposition has the power to ask more than one successive follow-up question to the Prime Minister – a maximum of six, and that is only at Prime Minister’s Questions. Even at the monthly departmental questions where each government department has to present its ministers to MPs for questions every month only enables the opposition shadow minister to ask one follow-up question. Backbench MPs are limited to one tabled question published in advance, and one follow-up. This means the minister can read out a bland prepared answer and respond to the follow-up question with a party-political insult such as “I’m not interested in what the Hon. Member has to say because when they were in government they did bad stuff! We’re more interested in getting on with doing what the British peeeeeple want!” and so on…and so on.

Select committees and follow-up questions

One of the few places where ministers can be asked follow-up questions is on parliamentary select committees. But neither the politicians nor the mainstream media has worked out how to get the best of this ability when it comes to presenting this to the public – even when the footage is electric.

Here’s one MP cross-examining a very powerful media executive. Note the comment at the end of this clip from Australia criticising some of the weak questioning in the face of the witnesses in front of them and the importance of the issues they are debating. The full exchange on video is here.

“Hang on – didn’t we used to have extended TV interviews with senior ministers every Sunday?”

We did – right up until the 1990s. Below is former MP and later TV interviewer Brian Walden grilling Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for three quarters of an hour on a Sunday afternoon only a few days after her Chancellor Nigel Lawson had resigned from office – one of the events that led to her downfall.

How many politicians today would be able to hold their ground on the decisions they had taken in the face of such a detailed cross-examination? Another example is the cross-examination by Alistair Burnet of the leader of the National Union of Miners, Mr Scargill, who was a prominent opponent of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. The point of the above-two videos is not about the content of their responses – that’s a separate debating point; it’s that there was a general expectation that senior politicians and prominent figures from industry (whether business executives or trade union leaders) would appear on television in long-form interviews to be cross-examined by the journalists of the day. Note that if the journalists did not do a good job, the snail mail letter boxes of the TV companies would know about it. This was in the days of a handful of TV channels where the BBC would run a show called ‘Points of view’ on Sunday evenings to read out who had written in about what.

The current administration won’t do it, but I’d like to think that one of the political reforms that will happen once we’re through collectively with Covid19 is that there will be an overhaul in how current affairs and politics are covered by the mainstream media. Because the current structures, systems and processes are not holding ministers to account.

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