Do you remember the tragic story of Jacintha Saldanha? You don’t? It was huge at the time. Jacintha was a nurse at the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to her first child. She got a hoax call from two Australian radio presenters pretending to be the Queen and the Prince of Wales, and put it through to the relevant ward nurse. When the news broke, Jacintha, who had had a history of depression, committed suicide by hanging, leaving two teenage children.
You remember it all now, don’t you? The public outrage, the Twitter mobs, the boycotts of the radio station, the death threats against the two presenters, the repeated attempts to bring them to court. Five years on, I hope you can see that these public campaigns were utterly inappropriate. Had the call not resulted in a suicide, no one would have regarded it as anything more than a juvenile prank. The presenters could not possibly have foreseen that their wheeze would end in such a horrible tragedy. Their lives, like those of Jacintha’s family, were ruined over a freak accident.
No one dared say so at the time, though. That would have meant stepping into the path of a lynch mob. A death changes everything. Different chemicals stir in our brains. Reason gives way to emotion. After such horror, someone has to be at fault. The blame, according to some curious inbuilt emotional scale, must be proportionate to the tragedy.
We are still at that stage in the aftermath of the Grenfell horror. Obviously, we need to find out what went wrong, and assess whether other places are at risk. If there is evidence of criminal negligence, of course that negligence should be punished. But the discussion over the past two days has gone well beyond these things. The country is bellowing for a scapegoat big enough and monstrous enough to bear responsibility for such an outrage. The idea of a tragic accident simply won’t do.
It’s easy to see why. Try reading the story of 12-year-old Jessica Urbano, whose mother got a desperate message on her phone at 1.39 am saying “Mummy! Come and get me!” I defy any sentient adult to look at that little girl’s photograph without choking up. Now multiply that grief by the number of missing people and you can see why we want to find someone to blame: it’s the easiest way to make sense of these abominations.
Like our pre-modern ancestors, we have an innate sense that, for such a horrifying event to have happened, there must have been great wickedness at work. Like them, we disagree as to who was responsible for the wickedness. Usually, though, just as they did, we blame whomever we already happened not to like. Glancing at this morning’s newspapers, I see that the Guardian blames inequality, the Mail blames eco-regulations, the Express blames EU rules and the Mirror blames the Tories. Simon Jenkins, that champion of harmonious and well-proportioned architecture, blames tower-blocks. Owen Jones, my favourite radical, blames racketeering landlords. For all I know, one or more of these villains may indeed be at fault; but, for now, it is mainly guesswork.
Guesswork and, perhaps, a measure of displacement activity. Leftists are raging at Theresa May for meeting emergency workers instead of victims. Rightists are horrified that Jeremy Corbyn, revealing himself in a crisis, has called for the requisitioning of private houses. Both things are easier to do than to try, even for a few seconds, to imagine what Jessica Urbano’s parents are going through.
The media always follow the same course on these occasions. Having initially blamed their favourite bêtes noires, they will move on to the victims and survivors, asking them what should be done. Which brings me to a very hard thing that needs saying. The victims deserve our utmost sympathy as well as our practical help. Please do give, if you haven’t already, to one of the appeals. But bereaved relatives have no particular authority when it comes to finding the correct prescriptions. We should not expect policy ideas from people in shock, and demanding them is not just a form of journalistic grandstanding; it is also deeply unfair to the victims it purports to elevate.
What, then, should we do? We should find out what actually happened and then, as emotions cool, act in a way that is proportionate to any actual failures, not to public grief. In the meantime, please let’s not get into competitive accusations as a way of flaunting our humanity. Unless you were there, this isn’t primarily about you.