Speed and Authenticity: The Changing Rules of Power

Ash Ghadiali examines the shift in perceptions of media clout, and how responses to the General Election and the Grenfell Tower Fire have demonstrated the changing rules of power. 

The moment the meaning of #GE2017 lands for me, it’s a week since the results came out and I’m watching a video on Facebook. Since the end of the election, Kensington keeps coming back into focus, first through the startling announcement, after multiple recounts, that a landslide has seen Labour’s Emma Dent Coad elected as Member of Parliament in a seat perceived as the quintessential symbol of Tory power.

Four nights later, there’s the horrific image of Grenfell Tower ablaze. This is the same borough that the Queen of England lives in, one of the most unequal boroughs in the land, and the story emerges that Grenfell, recently renovated by the Conservative-run council of Kensington and Chelsea, has had ten million pounds spent on a cladding designed to make it more attractive to residents of the surrounding luxury flats. It’s that cladding that, in breach of all safety regulations, seems to be the main cause of the fire spreading.

For months, we learn, Grenfell residents had been warning of such a tragedy, saying that fire exits, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems (all missing) were urgently needed, but the council had claimed its hands were tied. The reason was austerity.

Through that night and over the following days, hundreds of Grenfell residents fail to emerge from the fire and are never seen again, but figures issued by the government and mainstream media acknowledge only the number of people confirmed dead, and that’s a much lower figure: seventeen, twenty-something, thirty-something dead. The number keeps going up, but it’s never close to the hundreds we all know are missing.

Grenfell Tower Fire

Image by ChiralJon (CC by 2.0)

On the ground, this looks like a cover-up. It looks like willful misinformation, though what newscasters say and what the government officials say is that this is factual precision.

People expect a cover-up. They expect the system to protect itself. Fearing a risk to her security, Theresa May refuses to meet survivors at the site, and, when she does finally agree to meet them, it’s behind closed doors. Afterwards, as she hurries to her car, the crowd calls her a coward.

Meanwhile, residents and activists, demanding answers from their local politicians, have stormed Kensington town hall. They want accountability. They say that the people inside have authorised the decisions that condemned their friends and family to death and they want to know why.  

Through social media, scenes like these are playing instantly and constantly, creating a network of heightened emotion, a sense of authority with nowhere left to hide, and it’s within this ecology of imagery that a website called The Deep Left posts a short unedited video, filmed on a Kensington estate on a mobile phone.

It lasts about two minutes and a half, and sees writer and activist Ishmahil Blagrove challenging a Sky News reporter. We don’t quite catch the question that’s provoked him, but it sounds like the reporter has made some comment that equates the feeling on the streets that day with the rise of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Blagrove tries to put the reporter straight. ‘This isn’t about politics,’ he says. ‘It’s about people’s lives!’ But he’s incredulous at the reporter’s ability to keep asking what he sees as the wrong questions, and he takes the opportunity to dig into the roots of what he finds in front of him - this edifice of ignorance.

Ismahil Blasgrove challenges Sky News Reporter over media response to Grenfell Tower fire

The prism through which the mainstream media perceives the world, he suggests, means that it simply fails to see the world at all. It fails to see people. Even the idea, he says, that there is such thing as a ‘black community’ - this amorphous object that the news crew have come looking to encounter - is naive.

Community, he says, is, in reality, in a place like Kensington, a complex, layered interaction. It’s an umbrella term that unites a diverse multitude of communities - African-Caribbean, white working class, Moroccan, Somali, Spanish, Portuguese. All of this, he says, ‘when it comes together interfaces and becomes what we construct as a community’.

Emma Dent Coad, he suggests, speaks for all these people, this complexity, diversity. Victoria Borwick, on the other hand, the defeated Conservative MP, speaks for another tribe that ‘comes in and buys in because they’ve seen the movie or they think it’s a trendy area because the media says, look how wealthy it is’.

‘These people,’ Blagrove says, ‘come in and they sit down in their Bugattis and Ferraris and their Porsches and they make no effort to integrate.’ 

At about this point, the reporter, dressed in a suit and tie - Blagrove’s in a t-shirt and a baseball cap - asks him if he wouldn’t mind saying everything he’s just said again, but now on camera.

Pointing at the mobile phone, Blagrove asks him, ‘What do you mean? It’s on camera there!’ 

The Sky News shooter, we realise, has been watching the whole exchange while his camera has been pointed at the ground.

In the meantime, whoever holds the mobile phone has got the shot, has captured this moment, and, once it’s uploaded, more than 2.7 million people watch that video online.

Rupert Murdoch, it’s been said, when he saw the results of the exit polls on the night of the 8 June, just left the room.

Back on the pavement, one week later, Blagrove manages not to laugh as he tells this Sky News camera crew that ‘the mainstream media has dropped the ball’.

Interestingly, in this video, neither the reporter nor the cameraman seem to feel that they have ‘dropped the ball’. They’re both doing their jobs. They’re being respectful, choosing not to interrupt, waiting for an opportune moment to ask Blagrove for his permission to start filming before they pull out the camera.

They do re-film (although by then our video is over). Presumably, they go back to the office, having recorded what they needed, and call it a good morning’s work.

There’s no sense, from the reporter, that he sees the guy with the mobile phone as in any way a kind of competition. He explains to Blagrove, or his friend, that he’s offering to put him on the television: the news crew as a modern form of privilege and patronage.

He has no idea of the power of the people he’s talking to. They tell their own stories. They find their own audiences, instantly and in their millions. They represent themselves and make him look, to the world, the way he looks to them.

That shift of power and the story of hubris it reveals is really the story of our time.

May thought she knew the way things worked. She could call a snap election that would ‘crush the saboteurs’. She had the media behind her and would exude a clear appearance of authority. She chose to decline TV debates, believing this would leave her unassailable. She would avoid getting drawn on too much detail, preferring to push out the elegant simplicity of her soundbite of choice - ‘strong and stable government’.

It didn’t work. The rules of power are changing at a rapid rate. New synergies and networks of power can be formed at a moment’s notice, and, since we can see around the corner of a strategy of persuasion in an instant, bad acting can destroy a good political career.

An insincere sound-bite turns out quickly, in this digital age, to be a source of mass ridicule, coming back to the ears of its performer time and again as irony, as parody, as shame. New rules are emerging. What flies in this democracy that’s growing all around us, is what inspires. Power, very simply, as an authenticity that makes me want to share.

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Ashish Ghadiali is an independent filmmaker and Race Editor at Red Pepper Magazine. This blog post will appear as part of a roundtable on the 2017 General Election in the forthcoming issue 66 of Soundings.