In early 1990, before the first set of Hillsborough Inquests, the Liverpool Social Services Hillsborough Team had a team meeting in its Anfield Road base. I was a young social worker, not long qualified, inexperienced and yet to face bereavements of my own. Invited to the meeting were Phil Scraton and colleagues (Ann Jemphrey and Sheila Coleman I think, but I may be wrong) from what was then Edge Hill College of Higher Education. I knew them already as I was near to completing a part-time MA there in Crime, Deviance and Social Policy. Phil was one of my lecturers.
He and his colleagues were by that time already working on a City Council funded research project into the aftermath of the disaster. They couldn’t have guessed that it would lead to where we are now – with the establishment of the truth, twenty seven years later. Indeed, back then the very idea that there would need to be a campaign of any sort was difficult for many to imagine. The truth seemed very clear and justice, most of us naively thought, would follow. Lord Justice Taylor had published his first ‘interim’ report, in which he seemed fairly clearly to place the blame where it belonged. The inquests would surely confirm this. One colleague I remember stated it explicitly: ‘I just can’t believe that we won’t get justice’ she said. ‘What the families will get’, Phil replied, ‘is the law’.
It turned out to true – or true with a twist. Phil and others have since written extensively about the flaws in those original mini inquests and the ‘full’ inquests that followed – the aggregation of deaths, the extraordinary 3.15 ‘cut-off’ point, the differential application of decisions on admissibility of evidence, the summing up, and so on. Attending some of those sessions myself, what struck me was the much simpler unfairness in terms of legal representation. On the one ‘side’, families represented by one barrister (one mother, Joan McBrien also represented herself) and on the other, an array of QCs, six of whom represented police interests collectively or individually. Other interested parties too, the local authority and Sheffield Wednesday F.C, for example, were represented. One group without legal voice were survivors. What followed was a procession of cross examinations in which the victims’ voices were – by sheer weight of numbers – drowned out by parties with the same basic agenda: to blame the fans. Many survivors, some traumatised, who had travelled to Sheffield to contribute to justice found themselves publicly pilloried. By contrast police officers by and large could rely on sympathetic questioning in which they were invited to recount episodes of drunkenness, disorder and threat. What the families got was indeed, the law. Flawed enough in itself. But even the law that they got was law with a twist. The twist was that the evidence gathered on behalf of both Lord Justice Taylor and Coroner Stefan Popper comprised in large part of police statements and ‘recollections’ that had been ‘summarised’ and ‘edited’. It has taken all these years for the version of events that emerged over those months to be overturned and the verdict of accidental death to be replaced with the much more detailed verdict of unlawful killing,
Many years later I was working at Edge Hill myself as a part-time researcher, investigating the flaws in UK disaster responses. Phil was then my boss. One morning he told me that he had been for a walk in Yorkshire. His companion had been a police officer present at the disaster. The officer had disclosed that his and the statements of others had been altered. Evidence judged detrimental to the police case he said had been taken out or amended. Other ‘evidence‘ had been encouraged or exaggerated. It appeared that this had been systematic. In retrospect it was to be the turning point. Although the campaign was to continue for almost exactly two more decades, from that point Phil was able – with great tenacity – to uncover clear documentary evidence that the whole edifice of untruth constructed after the tragedy was rotten. He documented much of it in his book Hillsborough: The Truth of which parts were serialised in the Sunday Mirror. It is a scandal on its own that what was presented to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith’s ‘judicial scrutiny’ in 1998 was rejected and remained unaccepted for so long afterwards. It is important to remember today that Hillsborough was not always a popular cause. Indeed, it was an unpopular cause. The law had delivered its verdicts. Many accepted them.
Today, with truth at long last achieved, many voices are being heard. Many have things to say. This is only right – there are things that should be said. The struggle has taken nearly three decades. What happened ended lives and shattered others. It took smaller tolls on those like myself who had only passing involvements. But the disaster was at the centre of my working life as a social worker and continues to inform my work today as an academic criminologist. I have been invited to say something for this comment piece, so what to say? Well, there were personal impacts of working daily with bereavement and trauma that remained with me for some years. But that is true for many and it is essentially a private matter. In terms of the broader issues that Hillsborough raises however, here are four that go beyond some of the more obvious – albeit important – issues around policing: organisationally rooted harm; organisational deceit; the role of academia in terms of struggle; and the question of justice and organisationally based harm. They are worth a few thoughts I think.
First, Hillsborough is one, but only one example of how destructive organisations can be. As a discipline, criminology, the discipline I now teach, has been slow to take this on. It reflects rather than challenges official and popular constructions of ‘crime’ as a threat from deviant individuals and ‘rough’, marginalised groups who are defined as different from, and usually ‘below’ ‘us’. In doing so we too often fail to recognise harms that are organisationally based and / or commercially or politically grounded. Seldom are they brought to account under criminal law. Sometimes this is because they are not defined as serious criminal offences and sometimes they are not effectively policed or punished. Hillsborough has been an acute example of this – and not just in terms of the police or other failures on the day. There was no safety certificate. Stadia indeed were routinely unsafe. How on earth could anybody with a modicum of foresight, or even hindsight – because similar disasters were not unknown – have thought that it was a good idea to fence people in? Further: many of the worst organisationally based harms are not acute like Hillsborough but chronic. Asbestos still kills thousands even though we have known for over a century that it is lethal. We are one hundred times more likely to die from air pollution in the UK than by being murdered. These are relatively invisible and silent not because people aren’t harmed or don’t speak out, but because they are not listened to or their concerns are neutralised or dismissed.
This is related, secondly, to the capacities of organisations in a corporate age to conceal truth and produce untruth – to manufacture ignorance that sustains destructive misunderstanding or false understanding. The history of the tobacco industry is the classic case of dangerous industrialised systems of information management. More currently we have the spectacle of the car industry’s official vehicle emissions data unravelling and the fossil fuel industry’s heavily funded campaign against climate science. For decades FIFA sustained corruption in the full view of media attention. In this context, why we are so surprised when we find that organisations dissemble, distract and lie? Why indeed, would we expect anything else? Whether because of political interest, shareholder interest, management interest, or less commonly employee interest, of course the whole truths are often the last thing organisations would want revealed. And that has implications for all of ‘us’ – not just police officers who followed orders and changed their evidence on instruction. Because it is ‘we’, the employees who comprise organisations. We are the people who create deliberately misleading emissions software when we know pollution kills, who implement legal strategies to neutralise asbestos claimants, who sell sugar rich foods, who invent collateralised debt obligations, who turn back migrants into hazard, who stand by whilst celebrities abuse children; who watch or supervise institutionalised neglect in hospitals. The list could go on. In short we need to understand the roles of authority and compliance in the origins in both acute and chronic harms. We need to understand as Thomas Mathiesen puts it, how many of us, when implementing or witnessing organisationally based harms whether acute or chronic, are ‘silently silenced’.
Third, there are important things for us to think about here as academics – and particularly for those of us who are social scientists. It is to the great credit of colleagues who began their work around Hillsborough at Edge Hill that their efforts have contributed so much to the success we witnessed this week. Eileen Berrington, Sheila Coleman, Ann Jemphey, Margaret McAdam, Phil Scraton and Paula Skidmore should feel deeply proud today. Their success – in very long-term collaborative work in an area that was not fashionable – is a salutary reminder of the importance of committed and sustained research in a democratic society. Only a very small part of such research may be measurable. It is impossible to plan at the outset. It is not necessarily ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ it is about justice. Today it might well be seen as posing reputational / ethical risks. It reminds us with great force I think that rigorous high quality academic work across disciplines has importance that goes well beyond its contribution to our CVs or to institutional league tables.
Finally, ironically, it is worth observing that getting to the truth, should in principle at least, have been the ‘easy’ bit. Putting to one side any academic temptation to indulge in ‘there is no absolute truth’ type navel-gazery, the fact is that 96 people were killed by the combination of a fundamentally unsafe stadium in an unsafe industry, complacent planning prioritising ‘order’ over safety and wretched decision-making on the day. Some lives could have been saved even after the crush had contingency planning and the rescue operation been adequate. As I moved from social work into academia and began my own PhD work around disasters what always struck me about Hillsborough was actually that it was quite simple. It wasn’t a nuclear accident or an aircrash. It really wasn’t difficult to understand. The truth was there right in front of people. It was right there in the daily accounts I listened to as a social worker from survivors. It was there on TV and CCTV. The truth, that is to say, should have been the easy bit. To understand why it wasn’t, the best answer is still to read Phil and colleagues’ work. The difficult bit, ironically in terms of theory, philosophy, morality, law, policy and so on should be ‘justice’. Justice, even putting aside its practical implementation is actually a difficult concept. Looking beyond Hillsborough we continue to face a very real set of difficulties as to what ‘justice’ might mean and what purposes it might serve when we are dealing with organisationally based harms. Who is criminally responsible and to what extent? How are individual and organisational failings to be weighed? How do organisations ‘de-couple’ to transfer blame – and therefore retribution – downwards? How should serious harms be dealt with and on what basis? You can prosecute an organisation – although not as easily as you can prosecute an individual – but you can’t put it in prison, even if it kills people. In an age when prison is still the ‘default’ punishment doesn’t this amount to an institutionalised differential justice between individuals who can be imprisoned on the one hand and organisations that they work for on the other? Many of these issues are familiar and even obvious. None of them are ‘easy’.
On reflection, after all these years, I actually can’t say much about Hillsborough itself. Not in a real and meaningful sense. I wasn’t there. I didn’t lose anyone, although I came to know people who did. They are people who really know about Hillsborough. But I think we all have a duty to think about some of the issues around Hillsborough. About organisational harm, the deceit that frequently follows and about how truth and justice are to be defined and achieved. And again, what is quite simple is that neither of the latter should ever have to take twenty seven years to attain.
Dr Howard Davis is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology. He worked as a social worker for Liverpool City Council’s Hillsborough Team between 1989 and 1993.