Don't Be Evil
On the face of it, the Grenfell Tower fire and the government’s plan to ban new diesel and petrol cars from 2040 have little in common. Yet, both are examples of a new reality – that any company is going to be judged on how the products and services they provide affect the lives of ordinary people.
The Grenfell Tower fire was a defining event, not just because of its scale - the numbers who died and those made homeless – and not just because of the sheer horror of all those stories of people trapped in their burning flats unable to get out, or even worse not even trying to because the advice was to stay put and wait for help.
Grenfell was also a defining news event. The power and reach of social media with its ability to put out instant images and instant reaction unencumbered by the lumbering editorial processes and fact checking of the traditional media, meant we were saturated by images and reports from the scene almost immediately.
Perhaps in reaction to this competition to be the first to report the actual disaster, mainstream broadcast and print media turned almost immediately to the causes of the fire – and crucially who was to blame. It was just a few hours after the flames had finally been extinguished that Newsnight ran a report suggesting that the polyethylene cladding material installed in 2015 (to beautify it for rich neighbours according to cynics) meant the fire had spread far more quickly than it should have.
Questions were asked about whether cost cutting by the council had led to a less fire retardant version being used. Over the following days fire safety reports, council minutes and tender documents were dug out, and suddenly companies whose main contact with the press had been to send out a press release about their latest obscure industry award to the trade press found themselves in the full glare of the media spotlight.
For the mainstream media too, Grenfell has caused some real soul searching. “How”, asked one BBC bigwig I spoke to, “did we miss this?” He pointed out that concerns about fire safety in Grenfell had been raised in blog posts by residents going back to 2013, and the risk posed by cladding on high rise buildings had been raised in a select committee report back in 2000. But it was only after 80 people had died that the mainstream media took any notice. His response has been to tell his team to make more effort to find issues that effect real people’s lives – by which he means people unlike themselves.
The media class knew it had grown dangerously apart from the rest of the country after the shock referendum result and that was compounded by the last election after which every political pundit who predicted a landslide of varying proportions for Theresa May was forced to eat their words.
But Grenfell really demonstrated how out of touch the media is with the way large sections of society live – and how little effort it has put into covering their concerns.
So how does this link to the surprise announcement about diesel and petrol cars? Certainly the time scale has been very different. The problems over the policy of encouraging people to switch to diesel because they emitted less of the greenhouse gas CO2 have been apparent for years. We exchanged one problem - climate change - for another: air pollution caused by the nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates in diesel fumes. But it took some good investigative reporting including by my former colleague on The Sunday Times, environment editor Jonathan Leake, to expose the fact that the apparently ever tighter emissions standards being enforced by the EU on new diesel (and petrol) cars were being gamed by the car manufacturers who programmed their cars to know when they were in a lab test. When in test mode, the cars emitted levels of emissions that allowed them to pass the standard but once out on the road, they were belching out fumes many times the permitted level.
The issue really exploded into the public consciousness when VW was caught cheating by a US regulator. The “defeat devices” it had installed in its cars to artificially lower emissions under test conditions took the story to a different level because here was proof of a deliberate attempt to evade emissions controls. The ensuing scandal has cost VW billions of dollars and Bosch, the company which made the component, many millions too. This isn’t a minor matter: according to the Royal College of Physicians as many as 40,000 people a year in the UK die early because of air pollution to which NOx and particulates from private diesel vehicles are major contributors.
So here is the point for everyone else in business. What diesel emissions and Grenfell have in common is that both are examples of companies who broke the new cardinal rule. In the words of Google: “don’t be evil”. Whether deliberately or by omission both the cladding companies in Grenfell and the diesel car companies have been caught out by failing to take account of the effect of their products on the lives of those “real people” the BBC insider was talking about. And maybe they got away with it for so long exactly because the media class – middle class, university educated journalists (like myself) – weren’t looking.
It would be a foolish company that bet on that any longer.
Photo credit: Natalie Oxford, https://twitter.com/Natalie_Oxford/status/874835244989513729/photo/1