It took the bereaved families of Hillsborough 23 years to begin to secure justice for the loss of their loved ones. At the time of the tragedy, every organ of state, from the Government down to the police, undermined and ridiculed the strong and articulate cases being made by people in Liverpool and beyond, who were trying to bring to our attention a disgraceful injustice, perpetrated by corruption and cover-up in stomach-churning proportions.
Yet what reaction did they get? Traduced in the Sun, whose editors propped up the “official line” peddled by the police, and now say that they are “ profoundly sorry”, contempt from government ministers who now offer contrition from the Dispatch Box and predictable hand-wringing from the police who so despicably tried to cover up and denigrate the good names of the bereaved.
While we, as a society, totally support and empathise with the Hillsborough families and look to redress and accountability for the miscarriage of justice they suffered, any hope that similar events will be treated differently in future is naive.
Since time immemorial, the state either represented by ministers or their departments has reacted to allegations of injustice, cover-up and whitewash with instinctive hostility. While there is nothing wrong with rational caution, our own elected representatives, people put in office to support the citizen, treat the complaints of individuals and groups with dismissal, bordering upon contempt.
In the first few weeks, months and even years of any campaign for justice, governments mimic concern, but their gut instincts, especially if the event happened on their watch, is to pull up the drawbridge. The citizen is depicted as “well-meaning” even “driven”, but the subtext is, “Don’t challenge the state, we know best and we do not get it wrong. We certainly don’t cover things up.”
This country’s instinctive respect for the police and other crime-fighting agencies also kicks in. We seem to believe that if the police arrest someone, then that person must be guilty. This is not just the reaction of the state. The lynch mobs that gather outside magistrates’ courts to hammer at prison vans and scream obscenities at a defendant in the early stages of a trial, and the press vilification of innocent people, like Christopher Jefferies in the Joanna Yeates murder case, are examples of a society that is all too willing to back the state.
Yet successive governments and the police have got it very wrong over decades of different investigations. How certain the Home Secretary was, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that Timothy Evans was guilty of murder and sent him to the gallows; a vociferous public campaign, like others before and after, was ignored as the work of “do-gooders”. Years later, all the state could do was offer a profuse apology and posthumous pardon – just one example of the state choosing to diminish the arguments of the citizen. There are others: the judge in the Birmingham Six trial telling the jury incredulously that if the defendants were innocent, the police must be liars, which in his view was virtually unbelievable, and the persistent refusal of governments and courts to recognise the atrocities of Bloody Sunday.
A great many injustices have certainly gone on in the past that have yet to be exposed. And there are people from all walks of life who know, just as the Hillsborough campaigners knew, that great wrongs have been perpetrated. The deaths at Deepcut Barracks are just one example; the families of four young people who died at the barracks are still treated by government and the police as borderline crackpots.
The problem is there is too much respect for authority; too much respect for the police. They do get things wrong, they can act dishonestly and corruptly, and there have been and will be times when they cover up a bad investigation or even a dishonest one.
This is not an anti–police argument. The police do an important job, but they do not deserve the automatic respect and trust that seems to be expected of us.
Governments and politicians, departments of state, army generals and other impressive offices automatically receive respect. Yet each will protect its own, each is capable of whitewashes often performed as an excuse for maintaining public confidence and trust.
Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday and other disgraces would have been exposed far sooner had we shown a more mature capacity for disrespect and doubt. Maybe, the most fundamental lesson from Hillsborough is that when the citizen smells a rat, the citizen might be right. The inclination for covering up and hiding our failings is one of the most potent human instincts and the more significant the failing and bigger the organisation, the stronger the motive to hide the truth.
It is time for Britain to be disrespectful, to put away that cosy 1950s attitude of subservience and trust for our “betters”. If we all believed in ourselves a little more, maybe the state would be forced to do so as well.
John Cooper QC is a barrister whose cases have included representing the bereaved in the Deepcut Barracks litigation, Hercules and Nimrod aircraft fatalities, and presenting the Judicial Review of the Dr David Kelly inquest. He represented Paul Chambers in the “Twitter joke trial” and is Visiting Professor of Law at Cardiff University.