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Hillsborough: The Real Lesson Is... We Never Learn

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As the British legal and political establishment indulges in one of its perennial bouts of breast-beating and public self-flagellation - this time over the wholly needless death of football fans at Hillsborough in 1989 - I hope you'll forgive me a slightly hollow laugh.

Why so? I mean, they're all sorry now, from Prime Minister to Police Chiefs to media.

David Cameron has apologised for the "double injustice" suffered by families: not just their personal loss, but the cover-up that followed. Senior police officers are talking about re-opening the inquest, the inquiry, pretty much everything to do with the incident: talking, too, about prosecuting those responsible. Even - clock this! - serving police officers, no matter how exalted.

West Yorkshire Chief Constable Norman Bettison may count himself lucky if, in the end, he only loses his job - and doesn't end up prosecuted for manslaughter. Meanwhile, the Sun, the paper that did most to malign the reputation of fans, the living and the dead, has gone public with its own confession of egregious error.

Result!

Innit?

To which, wearily, I shrug: yes. Up to a point. Because alongside the public outrage, the outpourings of sympathy from senior establishment figures, the final and total vindication of the fans, the families who have fought so hard, so long for justice, another more corrosive, more wicked, self-serving narrative is emerging already, before the ink on the apology has begun to dry.

For, doncha know: it all happened long ago and far away. It reflects a culture of policing and cover-up that we've put behind us. We've.. .learnt our lessons.

Really? You see, that's what makes me so certain that we haven't. For that, self-congratulatory, complacent attitude is exactly why these sort of things happen and keep happening within and to the Great British establishment.

Its not unique to one career choice, one culture, because it is something that imbues pretty much every major organisation, every scion of authority: we only tend to notice it more in respect of the police because of their central role in upholding law and order. I doubt, though, that they are any worse, any better than any other organ of state.

It goes like this. When you screw up - as is inevitable from time to time - never admit it. Deny, deny and deny again. Spin the press. Muddy the waters and blame your accusers. Appeal to "national interest" and the greater good: wrongdoing must not be exposed because doing so would undermine confidence in the state.

As the stakes get higher, the accusations louder, play harder: dig out the dirt on your accusers. In the end, as has happened over Hillsborough, play it long. Spin it out until your "enemies" start to fall by the wayside, giving up out of sheer weariness - or simply dying. So when finally you are forced to own up to getting things wrong you can always point to it being the work of a previous generation. Since when - you've guessed it! - things are different. Things have changed.

I doubt this is a peculiarly British disease. I suspect bureaucrats in France and Germany and the US are every bit as corrupt. Still, its depressing to hear the usual suspects trotting out the usual pathetic excuses.

This was all about policing culture 20 years ago. Nothing to do with us, guv!

Just as the wrongful shooting of Jean Charles de Menenez in 2005 was under a previous Met Commissioner and the shooting of Mark Duggan which sparked riots in 2011 was ... well, it was only a year ago and we're still waiting for results of an inquiry and we don't know exactly what happened. But the reaction so far is identikit.

An establishment that is capable of convening courts to sit overnight to deal with social disorder is nonetheless incapable of investigating its own failings in any meaningful time-scale. Why is it possible for the press to identify and report on "news" within hours, minutes even? Yet, when it is suggested they have got it wrong - viciously so, on occasion - they claim they must follow processes which take weeks, months, years to disgorge a correction.

The NHS, caught red-handed, simply stonewalls: pays whistleblowers to hush their noise and when matters get sticky, simply smear the bringers of bad news.

This is happening not last year, last decade - but this week. I know, because as a serving journalist, it is my job occasionally to embarrass the authorities and, over the years, I have developed a thick skin. In part, I guess, because if you didn't you'd be burnt raw by the trickery with which the establishment seeks to protect itself every single day.

I am glad that those who suffered through Hillsborough are finally to see some form of justice. But don't be fooled. What they will get - the best that most victims will ever get - is fulsome apology too late to be meaningful, much hand-wringing, and the cheery assertion that now things are different.

They aren't. They never are. Particular egregious abuses of power and process may be exposed and put right. But the culture, the overweening sense that those in power are broadly right and the real problem is those disrespectful types who so rudely point out their error: that has not changed.