Why trial by media in the post-truth era leads to speculation, misinformation and fear

Andrew Eborn is a lawyer, strategic business adviser and producer. He has specialised in international licensing and global rights management for several years and has been actively involved with the global development of brands and the negotiation, acquisition and international exploitation of various major licences.

He is now working with several businesses across the IP value chain including the creation and licensing of content in all media from production, post production & Visual FX facilities to recording, publishing, distribution, supply of talent, technology, event & artist management, promotion and immersive technology.

Initial media reports suggested that cladding banned elsewhere in the world was not banned in UK

The wall-to-wall media coverage of the Grenfell Tower inferno was predictable. Self-proclaimed experts were dusted off and thrust in front of the camera to speculate, and we have all become experts on cladding and sprinklers.

We continue to witness intrusion into people’s grief and airtime being given to soundbites from the sultans of spin politicising pain.

The problem is that the focus of the media is now on being first. Not necessarily accurate just first. 'Live'. 'Exclusive'. 'Breaking News'.

In that quest to be first, however, one of the casualties is always the truth. Statements are allowed to pass without the much-needed forensic examination.

In this post-truth era if you don’t read the newspapers you are uninformed. If you do read the newspapers you are misinformed.

The media becomes judge, jury and executioner, and the more heinous the alleged crime the more abhorrent it is for the innocent to be treated as though they were guilty.

How can informed decisions be made until all of the evidence is heard? Trial by media is surely wrong... whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

The media has a huge responsibility to tell the truth, not just to be first.

When we are blinded by anger and drowning in misinformation, political point scoring and speculation, it is essential more than ever to question everything.

Ascertaining the truth takes time and resources. We need answers and we need answers now.

The blame game

We live in a blame culture where pain is used for political gain.

ITV's Robert Peston, while acknowledging that "the trigger" for Grenfell may still be unclear, suggested part of the background is austerity "...particularly acute for local government”. He pointed out that "austerity seems to have become particularly toxic in a system where responsibility for vital safety decisions is so diffuse: we have ministers in charge of regulations, councillors funding an arm’s length management company, and a management company placing a refurbishment contract with the cheapest bidder."

He went on: "As we saw in the banks before the financial crisis, when people can take reckless decisions safe in the knowledge they can't be held to account, reckless decisions get taken."

It may well turn out to be true but until we have all of the facts how do we know "austerity" is in fact to blame?

Public inquiries, especially those with a wide, scope take time.

At the moment we have far more questions than answers and that is frustrating. It also appears that some of the initial speculations peddled as the truth may in fact be wrong.

What caused the fire?

Rumours among residents suggested that a fridge exploded on fourth floor. Certainly there are media reports of faulty electrical goods being responsible for other major fires, but the problem with the news is that we are rarely given updates on what steps are taken after the relevant event has disappeared from the media spotlight. As a result history does repeat itself as lessons are not learned.

Surely we are entitled to know what action was taken? If faulty electrical goods are known to cause fires have those particular goods been recalled? If not, why not?

It has been pointed out that fire safety checks at tower blocks have been cut by a quarter since 2010, but is it the number of safety checks or the quality and detail of the check itself which is important?

Why did the fire spread? Was the cladding to blame? Would sprinklers have helped? If so, why weren’t they installed? Why was cladding used which has been banned in the US and Germany?

Initial media reports suggested that cladding banned elsewhere in the world was not banned in UK, but it has now emerged that that may not be true. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday 18 June chancellor Philip Hammond suggested such cladding was also banned in UK. If so, why was it used?

Rather than speculating, therefore, the right questions should be: are our regulations correct? Do they permit the right kind of materials and ban the wrong kind of materials? Were they correctly complied with?

These are questions that both the public inquiry and a separate criminal inquiry will consider.

Could more have been done to save lives?

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation apparently put forward a "stay put" fire strategy. Is that right and if so, what impact did the advice have?

What about homes in similar blocks? Action must be taken to prevent similar tragedies.

Policing and fire minister, Nick Hurd, has ordered checks to be carried out on tower blocks with similar refurbishments, but the findings need to be communicated so that issues can be addressed.

Help on the ground – need for information

Theresa May has said that help on the ground was “not good enough”. The headline hides the real issue. In fact, as the prime minister stated the response of the emergency services, NHS and community was "heroic".

While we have seen the worst of human nature we have also seen the best. The Queen was “profoundly struck by the immediate inclination of people throughout the country to offer comfort and support to those in desperate need.”

The real problem was the lack of information and failure to communicate.

I am a trustee of UK Harvest, a perishable not-for-profit food rescue operation that collects quality excess food from commercial outlets and delivers it, direct and free of charge, to charities. Earlier this year we held 'The CEO Cook Off' which saw senior business leaders swap their suits for aprons, and take up frontline positions in the kitchen, with some of the best chefs in the UK.

On the day of the Grenfell tragedy I was at the relaunch of St Cuthberts Day Centre where I met other organisations in the surplus food distribution space. Laura Winningham, chief executive of City Harvest, told me of her experiences at Grenfell that day: "The community organisations were filled with supplies but they had no central way to tell the community that no more was needed." Clearly there needs to be a central place to get this type of information.

Conclusion

There are so many questions but speculation spreads fear and fear breeds anger. The sultans of spin have to understand that well-crafted sound bites are not enough. Pain should not be politicised. We need solutions not soundbites.

Rather than speculate, however, let’s question everything.

Once the facts have been ascertained let’s ensure that informed decisions are made and actioned and communicated clearly so that history is not allowed to repeat itself.

If there are particular stories you feel should be subjected to a pressure test to find out whether they really stand up to serious scrutiny or you want help to avoid the predictable errors and omissions of others get in touch...

Andrew.Eborn@OctopusTV.com

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and @OctopusTV

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