Blog in 2017: The Grenfell tragedy has resurrected the madness of fire privatisation

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Grenfell Tower: The next morning Pic credit: Wikipedia

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

This year my small news site received an extraordinary boost from a five year old post which appeared to have been regenerated by the Grenfell fire tragedy.

The Grenfell disaster showed the bravery of the London fire brigade in tackling such a grim scenario. Heroism and extreme tragedy side by side.

The post that got revived in the wake of the fire was the almost unbelievable story of how an Old Etonian baronet living in a semi in Wellingborough, Northants had got his hands on the management of London’s entire fire engine fleet for £2. It is probably still the most egregious act of privatisation in this country. He of course had to hand it back after a few weeks as he couldn’t run it.

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Sir Aubrey Brocklebank: Sacked by the London Fire Brigade; Picture courtesy Daily Telegraph

The public authority had been powerless when the dodgy private company they gave the contract to maintain the fire engine fleet- Assetco London – handed over  London’s fire service to the baronet as the directors realising the game was up and fled the scene.

The good news here – though it has never been reported  by mainstream media-  is the authorities in their own slow way are ensuring the perpetrators get their just deserts.

Grant Thornton , the auditors for Assetco, have been fined  £3.5m (reduced to £2.275m  after they co-operated with the Financial Reporting Council) and found guilty of no fewer than 12 cases of professional misconduct.  The details are in this blog.

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Assetco’s John Shannon stands astride two London fire engines

Robert Napper, the individual accountant  responsible for auditing Assetco was fined £200,000, reduced to £130,000 after  he co-operated  with the inquiry. He had already retired but I traced him to an Oxfordshire village enjoying his expensive wines. 

Now Assetco directors John Shannon, Raymond ” Frank ” Flynn and Matthew Boyle are to face a disciplinary tribunal by the Financial Reporting Council on January 15. The statement is here.

The press release reads: 

“The Formal Complaint contains multiple allegations against each of Mr Shannon, Mr Flynn and Mr Boyle. The Formal Complaint includes allegations they acted dishonestly or recklessly; that they breached the fundamental principles of integrity and objectivity in the manner in which they prepared the financial statements; and that their conduct fell significantly short of the standards reasonably to be expected of members of Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI). The complaint covers a wide range of issues which pervaded AssetCo plc’s financial statements.

Some idea of what was going on has already been covered on this blog. Don’t hold your breath that the London Evening Standard will cover the story.

The original blog attracted over 2,500 hits when it was published. This year it topped my ratings with over 14,700 hits – showing that readers are interested in such issues.

Altogether over five years it has received some 20,000 hits.

The other stories have been posted on both my blog and byline.com – so the figures on my blog will be a small proportion of the number of hits on the stories.

The second highest hit from readers tells the heroic story of a London Midland train driver whose quick reaction in nine seconds prevented a commuter disaster near Watford. It  came out in an accident report and had over 5170 hits and can be read here.

ConservativesTwo stories about the plight of the Conservative Party also rated highly. A story revealing that membership of the Conservative Party had plummeted to 100,000 attracted nearly 5000 hits and one on changes to the Tory Party constitution attracted well over 1700 hits. The two blogs are here and here and on Byline here and here.

The real block to enormous boundary changes in Parliamentary constituencies is the DUP and this blog  and byline.com disclosed this last July. The links are here and here. 

On my site it got 2600 hits – mainstream media have finally followed it up last week but put the blame on Jeremy Corbyn instead.

Also popular was a blog on how secret influencers are bankrolling right wing  think tanks by the organisation Transparify . This attracted over 2400 hits on my site and the links are here and here.

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Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison Pic Credit: Twitter

The attempt to force Unison to rerun the election for the general secretary Dave Prentis also attracted a lot of readers. Again the public hearings by the Certification Officer received no coverage in mainstream media except the Morning Star. All the blogs received over 1000 hits – the largest being  over 1850 hits for a blog publishing the statement of a former union official who accused the union of ” anti Democratic practices”. The link is here and here. 

The issue is not quite over as a judge is due to hear the opponent’s case again  for an appeal on February 8.

Three other issues made the top slots – the  bonus payments to top DWP civil servants who set up the hated Universal Credit payments which I also wrote up for the Sunday Mirror; the scandal of 3.3 million pensioners who will have to wait years for the state pension and the prospect of two Tory Lord Chancellors facing legal action for institutional racism over the appointment of judges and tribunal members.

All this has to show that there is a  public appetite for investigative journalism and the mainstream media are increasingly ignoring important stories by sticking to a narrow agenda. Much more to come in 2018.

 

 

 

 

The collapse of the local press: A disaster facing local democracy

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Grenfell Tower: The next morning Pic credit: Wikipedia

I recently wrote a piece for the National Union of Journalists campaign,Local News Matters fighting to keep local newspapers alive. While much time has been devoted to the plight of the national press losing swathes of staff, not enough attention has been given to the almost total collapse of local news reporting.

The catalyst was the appalling Grenfell Tower fire which erupted with a huge loss of life, and why ,until then, nothing had been written about it. The fire not only destroyed a community but exposed the appalling lack of local reporting in the months leading up to the fire.

The local residents association – the Grenfell Action Group – had been warning of fire safety issues in Grenfell Tower and other blocks of flats as long ago as 2013.

But they had been ignored and when their blogs got too critical they were threatened by  the solicitor to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with defamation proceedings unless they took down the critical posts.

The reason why their concerns went unreported was entirely due to the state of the local press. As Grant Feller, a former reporter, wrote in Press Gazette
In 1990 there would have been two rival papers the Chelsea News and the Kensington News and a team of ten reporters looking at everything in the borough.
“But today there is no-one there. There is a newspaper that cares for Londoners, reflects London and does its bit for London – and that’s the Evening Standard. But it doesn’t do these types of stories.”
Indeed there are only two on line papers Kensington Chelsea and Westminster Today and the Kensington and Chelsea Times. Both are mainly life style and leisure publications. The KCWT contained just one article on the Tower disaster culled from coverage already broadcast by the BBC. The Kensington and Chelsea Times had one original story by a named reporter when the fire had taken hold and one story on an appeal for the victims.
This is not unusual. A damning submission from the NUJ to Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, gives details of the parlous state of the capital’s papers and their reporting abilities. It warns that events are not being properly covered, staff have been slashed to the bone, pay is appalling with many journalists not able to afford to live in London in rented accommodation yet alone get a mortgage. The situation is similar in the rest of the country.
Ex editors feel the same. Mike Gilson, who has had a stellar career in regional and devolved national journalism from the Portsmouth News to the Brighton Argus and from The Scotsman to the Belfast Telegraph, recently quit the Argus after trying to revive good investigative local journalism.
In article in the Press Gazette quoting from an essay he wrote for a book Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? he says :
“In Brighton searing images and accounts of the Shoreham Air Show tragedy last year, as an out-of-control vintage aircraft sped from a clear blue sky into unsuspecting motorists on the A27, were online before journalists, photographers and writers, had even made it to the scene.
But we still need journalists with the time, training and passion to avoid this ever-increasing deficit. No amount of digitally empowered bloggers, many of them diligent thorns in the side on a range of issues, will make up for the loss of professional reporting.
In some towns courts, council meetings and trust boards are all going unreported now.”
Now some of the slack has indeed been taken up by the growth of bloggers and citizen journalists. But however good these people are they are not a substitute for a well staffed paper with ten fully paid reporters covering a local community.
Bloggers just like the Grenfell Action Group are also vulnerable to being picked off by powerful people and threatened with defamation if they criticise wealthy powerful individuals or even public bodies. The case of the Camarthenshire blogger,. Jacqui Thompson, who was threatened with losing her home after a bitter legal dispute between her and the chief executive of her local council, Mark James. is an example. He used public money to sue her and fight a counter claim despite criticism from the National Audit Office in Wales. She is still left with paying out £25,000 over a dispute that began with her filming the council.
Frankly this means that people in powerful positions are beginning to realise they can get away with things that ought to be investigated by an independent press. Whether it is local corrupt deals, appalling child sexual abuse claims or people being bullied and harassed by the wealthy, those in authority and criminals knowing they have a 90 per cent chance of getting away with it.
The conclusion is obvious. If we don’t do anything to stem the collapse of local reporting we will have a democracy in name only, with no substance because nothing will be reported.