Tag Archives: Hillsborough Panel Report

What is a “Social Conscience”?

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It’s not very often I repost other people’s blogs but this contains one of the most perfect examples of a social conscience in action, it would have been a crime not to. We can honour the sixty-nine victims of Hillsborough, and their family’s twenty-three year campaign to get at the truth, for giving us such a perfect and terrible example of how a social conscience works upon the individual.

When I decided to expand upon what ‘social conscience’ means, interesting things emerged from my brief research. The first, which came as a complete surprise, was that there was nothing about it in Wikipedia. The closest entry was ‘social consciousness’ which is not the same thing at all. The subjects are very different. So there needs to be a clarification of what is meant by the term. This is what I found:

Dictionary.com:     social conscience – definition:   an attitude of sensitivity toward and sense of responsibility regarding injustice and problems in society

Oxford Dictionaries:       social conscience – definition:   a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society

Before I embark on this exploration, it’s also worth considering the meaning of conscience in the personal sense, which goes something like this:

Conscience:       noun

  1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience.
  2. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent: I’d eat another piece of pie but my conscience would bother me.
  3. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

We know we have a conscience when we start feeling guilty, i.e: “to have something on one’s conscience, to feel guilty about something, as an act that one considers wrong”

 

It is probably fair to say that if we don’t have a personal conscience when it comes to our actions, then the chances of our having a social conscience are probably quite low but there are exceptions. The best example of this is probably mine!

As an ex-offender, I have a choice about whether I reveal this information to others or not. UK law requires that this be made available to potential employers but, in a social setting, if I want to hide the fact, I can. That I choose to disclose is a matter of both personal and social conscience.

On a personal level, if I am to be successful in my ambition to fully rehabilitate, hiding my immediate past is a road to disaster where mutual trust is concerned. We never know who knows what about us and my social conscience tells me that any trust that might be built will be destroyed altogether if those who trust me discover such a significant omission from my autobiography. To avoid this problem means, from my perspective, that it is far better that they hear it from me first. Any subsequent trust that might be built will have it’s foundations in solid reality and anyone who thinks to cause harm by disclosing my past will fail because the information is already out there. On occasions, this viewpoint has been a very strong point of contention especially when I was supervised by Probation. One officer I dealt with was convinced that my opinion and disclosures were just plain wrong. I disagreed and this probably figured among the reasons used to recall me to prison. Despite this, I still haven’t changed my mind. If someone honours me with their trust, I feel guilty if I don’t tell them. In this, I am guided by my conscience.

Given the obvious action of a guilty conscience in the above example, I am very interested in what appears to be my failure of guilt when it comes to the crime itself. It is quite true that my offense was wrong and I regret that it ever happened but, somehow, I’m not sorry. It was something I had never done before and will never do again. These points I freely accept and I have made strenuous adjustments to my behaviour as a result. Nevertheless, no matter how insane it might sound to others, I know that my guilty conscience would have been far worse if I had failed to act. I can appreciate the social viewpoint and know I will never act that way again because I have put an alternative in place. If the same situation arose, it would be me that got hurt and not anyone else. My social conscience tells me that as a result of my offence, I am required to be: honest about myself; truthful about my past; accept that there are social opportunities no longer available to me; and that I must always give priority to the safety of my community over and above any needs or concerns of my own.  These are how the issues of conscience function within me.

 

 

If I go back to the blog that inspired this, the experience of social conscience is described thus:

“I once heard a Townsend-Thoresen employee apologise for the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. He wasn’t on board but felt tainted by the mistakes. I now know what he meant.”

In some ways, this explains my problem with feeling guilty for my crime. At that time, the city I was living in had a lot of problems, some of which were being perpetrated by individuals responsible for the public good. They were not acts I had committed but I felt deeply for those who were victims and found myself unable to stand by without trying to do something about it. The result meant that the perpetrators turned their attention to me. It’s a long, painful and embarrassing story which can wait for another time but my experience resonates, in small part, with the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. Although innocent, they were subject to sustained, long-term vilification in order to hide the failings of those truly responsible only now confirmed after twenty three years. Those responsible sought to hide their failings by blaming the victims. The amount of collective guilt contained within this appalling loss of life is so great that it can felt by those who were never involved.

To experience such guilt is the consequence of having a social conscience. It means that what harms one, harms everyone – participant and observer alike.

 

In a balanced world, we understand the true meaning of a quality like a social conscience not only through its definition but also through its opposite. If we accept my personal definition that a guilty conscience demands that I change how I behave, what are the measureable indicators for someone who is guilty but maybe has no conscience? Using Hillsborough as an example, what are the responses from those who thought to vilify the victims? Well, here are a few examples:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/12/hillsborough-disaster-david-cameron-apologises

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/13/boris-johnson-apologises-hillsborough-article

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/sep/12/hillsborough-disaster-mackenzie-profuse-apologies-sun

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/13/fa-chairman-bernstein-apology-hillsborough

Apologies seem to be the order of the day, with one notable exception

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/13/hillsborough-report-norman-bettison-refuses-resign?intcmp=239

Bitter experience has taught me to be very careful about commenting on the behaviour of Chief Police Officers. Nevertheless, if an unconnected and innocent police officer can feel guilt over police actions, some twenty three years after the events, it might be interesting to wonder about the opinion expressed by Norman Bettison.

In my research for this piece, I came across a fascinating site that addressed these issues, albeit in relation to bullying amongst children. It describes three stages to the process of acquiring a social conscience. The first is ‘denial’ that there is a problem. The second, ‘acceptance’, acknowledges that there is a problem, however;

“The one who engages in bullying behavior is basically admitting to all that “I am honest about my actions, but I do not accept that my actions have a negative effect on anyone but see my actions as benefiting myself, and if there are punishments I manage to blame others.”

There’s another level to this stage wherein the one who engages in bullying behavior may also be saying, “I deserve this consequence because I broke the rules, but there is nothing deeply wrong with what I did except that I got caught.”

This is a key disconnect between actions and consequences.”

According to the author, the final stage is ‘awareness’ which may be correct for children, but I don’t believe it ends there for adults. The final measure for adults is, I believe, to change your behavior. An example of how that might work comes from amongst my peers:-

“One of her favourite “ups” was shortly after she had been studying the book ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver with some prisoners. A member of staff reported one of the prisoners had been talking in another group about how he’d suddenly realised the potential impact of his crimes (10 years later) on his family.”

From this, it would seem that one of the prerequisites to developing a social conscience in adults is empathy – the ability to stand in another person’s shoes and experience events from their perspective.

 

When considering the sudden flourish of apologies, after twenty three years of systematic scorn, I do wonder whether these are actually enough. During the years I was getting myself into therapeutic problems as a client, there came a point where the therapist said “I don’t want your apology. Your apology doesn’t mean anything. What I want is for you to stop doing what you are doing.” Whilst painful at the time, her intervention has informed me ever since because it was a fair comment. I’d been using apologies to get me off the hook of being caught rather than addressing the deeper need for change. Looking at this Hillsborough bouquet of them, it’s hard not to be reminded of this.

Do we believe these people mean it when they say they are sorry? In all honesty, with the possible exception of the Football Association, I’m not sure I do. My social conscience tells me that the responses from David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Kelvin MacKenzie fall into the category of;

“I deserve this consequence because I broke the rules, but there is nothing deeply wrong with what I did except that I got caught.”

As far as MacKenzie is concerned, I am not the only one who finds this unsatisfactory, given he was a participant in the impugning of Hillsborough victims.

 

With regard to David Cameron; his apology related to the cover-up of facts. Regrettably, Cameron has already found himself in political difficulty around similar issues. His willingness to accept apologies at face value and generously extend second chances to those he knows borders on parody. For those he doesn’t know, the story becomes very different. One of the manifestations of active conscience is balanced consistency of behavior. Cameron might be consistent but the evidence of balance is thin on the ground.

Boris Johnson also appears to have a history of cover-ups too.

 

In my reality, to have a personal conscience means we take responsibility for actions that may have caused harm to others. This may be remedied by an apology but this is not always the case. For example; I could apologise to my victim but I doubt she would accept it and, under those circumstances, it becomes disrespectful to offer one. Any possible forgiveness can only be attained by atonement. In matters of social conscience, I wonder if the same principles apply.

The answer to that question might well be found with the people of Liverpool. My own social conscience informs me I relinquished my right to comment on that when I offended.

 

There is one last step in the process of exercising my social conscience. As an outsider, uninvolved with the events of Hillsborough and its history, I have drawn a lot of information from the release of the report of the Panel. If I were one of the campaigners, I might feel invaded by this free use of their experiences. They have suffered enough and they certainly don’t need any more and definitely not from my hand. Yet my conscience feels the wrong they have suffered deeply enough to feel the guilt of inaction which says I could have done more for them.

A social conscience is more than just empathy. It is empathy that is going somewhere. If there is anything I could give to the families of Hillsborough and the people of Liverpool, it would be this: to make certain all those young people did not die in vain.

The ‘gift’ of Hillsborough has been to teach us all about what it means to have a social conscience. This is simply my opinion of what a social conscience looks like in action. May it contribute to ensuring society changes to ensure such events never happen again.

 

 

 

 

The Hillsborough Panel Report and a very bad day for the Police

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Yesterday, some of our police officers had a very bad day indeed. There were two reports in the press. The first was about a police officer who had intentionally scuppered a series of sex crimes by lying about what he had done and failing to pursue the cases through to prosecution. In some ways, this is to be expected. Police officers are human beings, just like the rest of us, and there will always be the odd bad apple somewhere.  Officers will take it on the chin and recognise that this is a part of policing, whether they like it or not, but that case isn’t what caused so many on Twitter to fall into painful silence. What did that was the publication of the report from the Hillsborough Panel.

As the findings came to light, led by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, details emerged into the public domain. The Report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel is shocking. The tragedy itself and the difficulties the police and other emergency services had in coping with a situation that took 96 lives would have been bad enough. What really did the damage to the officers on Twitter was the information that followed:-

  • That police carried out criminal record checks on the deceased in an attempt to “impugn their reputations”
  • That senior officers privately discussed the “animalistic behaviour” of “drunken marauding fans”
  • Evidence that a number of the dead survived “for a significant period” beyond the 3.15pm cut-off point imposed at the original inquest
  • 116 of the 164 South Yorkshire Police statements were doctored to remove unfavourable comments
  • South Yorkshire Ambulance Service was misleading when it claimed criticism of its conduct made by doctors who were present was factually inaccurate
  • There was “no evidence of substance” to support the police account that alcohol and fan aggression played a part in the disaster
  • Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed concern in Cabinet that the first inquiry into the disaster contained “devastating criticism of the police”
  • The weight placed on blood alcohol levels among the dead was “inappropriate” (Source: Daily Telegraph)

It took twenty-three years to finally get at this information; a journey which included:-

  • a Home Office inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Taylor
  • a criminal investigation
  • inquests
  • civil actions
  • a judicial review of the inquests
  • a judicial scrutiny of ‘new evidence’ by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith
  • a private prosecution of two senior police officers
  • a submission to the European Court of Human Rights

From what I saw of their reactions on Twitter, the best of the police were as horrified as everyone else and probably more so. What occurred betrays the Oath they take when they become officers. Those wanting to do a good job pay attention to this because it guides them in their work. What occurred during and after the Hillsborough tragedy violated the Oath to its very core. As the documents reveal, we discover that officers, already traumatized by the event itself, were ‘helped’ by senior officers into altering, deleting or qualifying their originally truthful statements thereby becoming unwilling participants in an intentional collusion to blame the victims instead. This tells me that senior officers coerced constables to violate their Oath in an astonishing abuse of power.

Our view of the police is frequently coloured by our experiences with those we do encounter. Listen to prisoners and they’ll tell hair-raising stories of how bad they are. Listen to others and the police can’t put a foot wrong. Both views are inaccurate because they are unbalanced in their reporting. Having met quite a few police constables during my adventures with the law, I’ve found that there are those who are excellent; many who are good-enough; and those who are downright dangerous. Each police officer is different because we are all individual but, if I was polite and respectful – even when they were arresting me – the best and the good-enough did no harm. They were doing their job and following orders. I’ve never seen any reason to make the process more difficult than it needs to be and, in return, they responded in various ways, from simply being fair to offering considerable kindness when I was at my most distressed.

The possibility that these officers could be subject to coercion by senior staff comes as no surprise to me at all, because I’ve seen it before. The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s documents haven’t yet revealed who issued the orders because they haven’t been thoroughly examined yet. We may never know but these remain extremely important questions. Who ordered police constables to alter their statements and ‘helped’ them when they objected? Who ordered the background checks of the victims, actively looking for evidence to impugn their reputation? Who was involved in fabricating tales of drunkenness and ‘animalistic’ behavior? This could only have come from the senior and very senior officers of South Yorkshire Police. Who were these people and what kind of orders are they issuing now?

Certainly one, Norman Bettison – a Chief Inspector with SYP at the time of Hillsborough – is now the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police. The Guardian Live Blog comments: “Bettison was part of the internal review team at South Yorkshire police who have been accused of engaging in black propaganda to shift blame for the stadium disaster from the police and onto fans,” although the man himself has consistently denied it, particularly when he became Chief Constable of Merseyside – a surprisingly tactless appointment in the light of subsequent events. But what happened to the rest of them? Are they still working for the police? Where? What are they responsible for now?

If I were a police officer facing this kind of reporting about my service, I would be both appalled and worried. The service is already under strain as government budget cuts begin to bite into direct services. At the same time, they face the threat of privatisation. Knowing our present government, the shock of the Hillsborough Panel’s report could well be used as a political excuse to speed up this process under the guise of efficiency. Yet I do wonder if Hillsborough families would have ever had access to the truth of what went on had the event been covered by privatised police. Somehow, I doubt it.

Morale within the police, as with many other public services, is very low. Their pay and pensions are under threat; the services they provide have been whittled down to danger levels; the social problems we expect them to deal with are likely to increase; they are facing privatisation; and now this. The situation has deteriorated so badly the police are considering industrial action – something else they are forbidden to do! It’s as if the country has ceased to be grateful to those who do walk towards trouble while the rest of us walk away.

When I began this piece, I was aiming to be supportive for the best of our police officers. What I didn’t realise is just how hard it is to do that these days. The collective force of negativity is so powerful it can seem, at times, impossible to combat. It only changes when I recognise the levels of social responsibility attached to the job.

Our politicians use terms like ‘social responsibility’ in their rhetoric but, from my perspective, few have any real notion of what it means. To be socially responsible means to put aside personal or ego needs in favour of the needs of the community. It requires such people to be unselfish with their knowledge, skills, abilities, and, in the case of the police and other emergency services, their lives too. The very best of the police, prison officers, fire services and medics put themselves at risk to keep us safe each and every day. We might not see this with our own eyes but we expect them to be there when we need them. To do that, they have to give up aspects of life we take for granted so we, us non-emergency people, can keep ours. We expect them to be better than we are; to have better behaviour; to have a better social attitude than the ones we hug to ourselves; and we give them hell if they fail. There was a time, as a society, where we valued the personal sacrifices they made on our behalf. We didn’t begrudge them a decent wage and we recognised that the pension they got at the end of their working life was a fair reward for the services they’d provided to us.

Times have changed and not for the better. When it comes to the police, we already have lost a significant number through government budget cuts. These come at a time when the indicators for social unrest suggest we can expect more of this as poverty, homelessness and hunger start to cut into the bones of our society. When our communities explode, as it appears they might, who are we going to call on? Privatised police? Exactly how likely are they to be working “without favour or affection, malice or goodwill”? Personally speaking, if the efficiency of G4S during the London Olympics is anything to go by, we can kiss our collective ass’s goodbye.

If any good is going to come out of the Hillsborough Panel’s report, perhaps we can be grateful for the information of what can go on ‘behind-the-scenes’ in some police forces. The ‘help’ those Hillsborough police received to change their statements violated the heart of both the employment and social contract of policing as that stands at present. Perhaps it’s time to start questioning some of the orders being issued for their lawfulness. Perhaps it’s also time to really start appreciating those police officers who know just how important their Oath is, especially to the public. And perhaps it’s time to really start respecting the best of our police officers whilst dealing with the worst.

If I had written a purely supportive piece on this subject, it wouldn’t have been true and any police officer reading it would know that. Untruths are no good to anyone, especially when facing the kind of problems I’ve already outlined. So this piece has evolved into something as realistic as I can get it from an outsider’s perspective. The police have to deal with this reality every working day and I think it’s disrespectful not to acknowledge that.  They live this reality whilst I only write about it from a home made safe by their presence whenever it’s needed. They’re a tough and often cynical bunch because that can be the only way to survive when you do the job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to hear they are valued.

Yes; there are clearly some very serious problems within the police service and some of those are bad police officers at senior levels. Yes, there are equally serious problems developing within the community. Yes, everyone will be looking to you to sort these problems out and, yes, some of us know that it’s being made very hard for you to do that. It’s a horrible position to find yourselves in and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, especially our emergency services. But please also bear in mind that there are some of us who see what you do, know what you’re struggling with and are astonished at your commitment to keep going. Some of us are deeply grateful, not only for what you do but for your commitment and integrity, even in the face of stories like Hillsborough. I’m one of them.

Thank you.