The recent coroner's enquiry into Hillsborough reveals a double tragedy. First, of course, there were 96 deaths. The jury's verdicts of unlawful killing indicate that they were caused by gross negligence and now the criminal law must take its course. In relation to this, it is hard not to feel sorry for the policemen who were in charge on that day. Of course they made a dreadful mess of it and no doubt panic, lack of training, incompetence and bad luck all played their part. Still, it is an unusual person who can truthfully say that he or she has never made a grossly negligent mess of anything; it is just that in most cases the negligence does not have such catastrophic consequences.
More difficult to understand is what followed. The second tragedy of Hillsborough is the damage done by the police cover-up operation. That is something which goes beyond the Liverpool fans, unfairly traduced as they were, and affects all of us. The appalling allegations made, and their acceptance by large sections of the media, left each and every one of us with the impression that human nature is more base than it actually is. For some of us that impression has now been put right, and we should be grateful for those who have campaigned so tenaciously to correct the record; but for others the truth has come too late, and that they have gone to their graves with their faith in human nature dented by their belief that large numbers of people behaved in the bestial manner originally reported is immeasurably sad. There will be little sympathy for the police over the cover-up and quite understandably too. Still, that shouldn't stop us trying to understand what occurred.
The instinct to "change the facts" to avoid being blamed has been hardwired into us by the process of natural selection. Those who shift blame survive and prosper. Those who fail to do so do not, or at least do so less. The instinct is particularly strong among politicians. A failed policy? Why, blame someone else or at least find a reason why the decision was right at the time. A bad election result? It must be down to the underhand tactics used by the other side, or the bigotry of the electorate, or the fact that you were let down by the national party. Just find a way of shifting the blame to someone else, and if that means playing fast and loose with the facts so be it.
It isn't just individuals who behave like this. The same approach is taken by groups of people, by companies and institutions. When something has gone badly wrong, the first reaction is to try to cover it by putting it right, often by taking unjustifiable risks of making things worse; if this fails, Plan B is to escape censure by finding a version of the fact that justifies the initial decision.
Apply this to Hillsborough and you will see how it must have happened. Here was an error which could not be put right in any possible way. That drove those responsible to Plan B. Invent a version of the facts which places the blame elsewhere. Who are to be the fall guys? Well, the fans, of course, a group about whom the public would be prepared to believe the worst. Once those involved had taken the first hesitant step down the path, they could not go back even if they wanted to, because even if the mistakes in crowd control could be explained, the lie that had been told could not. The die was well and truly cast. At that stage the only possible way back would have been for others not involved in the decision to spot what was going on and to put a stop to it. That didn't happen.
We will be told of course that lessons have been learned and no doubt that is true. There will be lessons in crowd handling, in the experience needed to command functions where public order is an issue, and no doubt in many other things as well. There is no lesson, however, which will teach people not to try to cover up their errors, because that is just not something which can be learned. All one can do is to try to make cover-ups less likely, and one way of doing this is to ensure that institutions are open and have a wide variety of people working for them. After all, a cover-up requires an element of conspiracy and that is easier to achieve among people who share a strong common culture than among people who do not.
From this perspective the police are in an unusual institution. Although their work brings them into contact with all parts of society and is clearly highly demanding, it does not follow that individuals from all parts of society adopt policing as a career. That has had the effect of excluding certain parts of society from policing, and a great deal of effort has gone into attracting recruits from the various immigrant communities. There has been less focus, however, on attracting middle class applicants into the force, something which would introduce more variety and help to dispel what is left of the canteen culture.
That isn't to say that there has been no progress in that direction. There are direct entry schemes and the proposal put forward by the Police College that eventually all recruits should, like nurses, have a degree, may, if they do not degenerate into a simple shift from a system where training is done by the police to a system where it is done at university, make a police career look more attractive to the middle class child. Still, we are not there now, and until a career in the police is widely seen as being equivalent to a career in teaching or the professions, and it certainly has the potential to be as exciting as either, the opportunity to increase vertical diversity through the attraction of applicants from different social backgrounds is being wasted. That restricts the mix of personnel - the lifeblood of most successful institutions. It also means that the police remain cut off from an important section of the society which they are hired to police.
Republished from the Shaw Sheet