Journalist Hugh Muir recounts his memories of reporting on the Ronan Point tragedy. He is now Associate Editor of Guardian Opinion.
Hugh Muir was a reporter on The Recorder in the eighties. He recalls his time on the paper, witnessing the power of ordinary people to incite lasting change.
Hugh Muir Picture: Felix Clay
I have many memories from my time on the Newham Recorder. It was always a brilliant news patch – crime stories, political stories, protest marches. We seldom struggled to fill the paper.
But one of my most enduring memories involves the time I spent with a group of ordinary people who became worried about the safety of their homes and decided to do something about it.
Back in the 1980s, it was simply impossible to predict the rise of social media or the sophisticated public relations that drives social campaigns today. But it was important then as now to engage the public, to humanise advocacy in a way that can engage and move the public.
The Newham Tower Block Tenants Campaign clearly understood that. Watching these residents learn about the structural integrity of their homes and the workings of the council was an education in itself. They trusted me with their information. I wrote about their concerns and strategies in our paper.
A few were human interest stories. Others, informed by long conversations with the architect Sam Webb, dealt with wider structural concerns. Sam was crucial in that he had, then as now, an incredible ability to explain building and construction concepts to the layman, even a slightly dim reporter. One story in particular gained media traction. On dismantlement, it emerged that a load bearing joint from Ronan Point had been stuffed with an old copy of the Daily Mirror.
In 1984, Newham Council voted to demolish Ronan Point. Nine more blocks on the Freemason Estate were demolished in 1986. Two thoughts occur – one, the extent to which ordinary people, focused, informed and determined, can achieve momentous change. Two, that there was a clear line of accountability.
They were council blocks, the campaigners persuaded the council, the council made a decision in the best interests of its people. Compare that with the tangle of responsibilities we saw after the Grenfell fire disaster in west London and the difficulties residents there had in making their voices heard, even as they highlighted risks that led to the disaster. There was a democracy open to ordinary people that we sorely need now.