Strictly speaking, this is off the topic of Tower Hamlets but as it concerns transparency in public life, there’s more than a slight relevance. Here’s an op-ed piece I’ve written for the Sunday Express today on some lessons from the Hillsborough cover-up. (I’m going to post some fascinating revelations about what could be a spending scandal in Tower Hamlets a bit later today).
HIGH up in a building towering over East London, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe addressed a conference on the future of policing.
Before him were many familiar faces: senior police officers, policy makers and business professionals, all eager to hear his views on the coalition cuts and the implications for outsourcing and community policing.
The timing of Friday’s Canary Wharf meeting was interesting.
Two days earlier policing in this country suffered one of its darkest days when David Cameron delivered revelations about the Hillsborough tragedy, so shocking they reduced not only several MPs in the Commons to tears but also some journalists in the press gallery.
The PM’s sincere words about a cover-up by police and others in high office had landed like dull, heavy blows to the solar plexus, shaking people’s faith in the cornerstones of our democracy.
So sitting there in Canary Wharf I was half-expecting Mr Hogan-Howe, a former Chief Constable of Merseyside, to make some reference to those events of 1989 and to how policing and more pertinently the scrutiny of policing had moved on.
But no, not a word.
Fair enough, I thought, the conference was more about looking forward than back and his speech on the scheduled items was robust, refreshing and well received.
As he was leaving I approached him in the corridor. I wanted to explore whether the Hillsborough cover-up confirmed the suspicions among some that the police would always try to hide their own errors.
If they could doctor the evidence on the deaths of 96 people in a high-profile tragedy was that not playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists who believe it happens all the time, I wanted to ask.
“It was 23 years ago, we should be confident in our policing today,” he said.
A couple of hours later I asked the question to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty who was at the conference. Her response was more expansive.
She said: “Hillsborough is one of the most horrific stories of secrets, lies and abuses of power in my lifetime and not just the police but all sorts of powerful institutions need to do some serious soul-searching. It also demonstrates the danger of the current Bill going through Parliament to introduce secret courts.
“The last thing we need is secret courts and we’ve just seen how easy it seems to be to cover up huge abuses of power.”
Shami was referring to the Justice and Security Bill that allows sensitive material in criminal trials to be heard in private and is now in the latter stages of Parliament.
Yes, 23 years is a long time ago. Yes, the circumstances surrounding Hillsborough have changed and yes, policing has moved on but has human nature really altered?
In all walks of life there is the temptation to cover your back and in far too many circumstances we’ve probably all seen people trying to lie their way out of errors. In public office the offence is far graver.
Over the past 18 months I and a sadly small handful of other journalists have covered some of the failings of our Family Court system, which until relatively recently was largely closed to the public.
I’ve spoken to social worker whistle blowers who have been told by their bosses to “sex up” dossiers on problem families so local authorities intent on removing children for adoption purposes can have an easier ride in front of judges.
Leading academics have uncovered fundamental problems in the system of expert witnesses used by Family Courts to assess the mental health of natural parents.
A close British friend of mine had her 14-month-old baby removed from her by a judge in Spain based on the wrongly translated assessment of a junior court-appointed psychiatrist.
In other cases I’ve worked on, pregnant mothers have had to flee the UK to have their babies as they have so little trust in the “secret” court system.
It’s not just courts. Anyone who has had to fight their local council to disclose documents under the Freedom of Information Act will also know just how much our bureaucrats love their work being hidden.
The fact is that transparency works. Tony Blair is to be congratulated for having started the process with the FoI Act… and condemned for later regretting it.
Likewise Mr Cameron’s transparency agenda, which forces public authorities to publish spending transaction details, is another welcome step forward.
Shining a light is the healthiest of medicines when it comes to holding our leaders to account.
Last year MP John Hemming came under fire for breaking a super-injunction secured by footballer Ryan Giggs, who had been having an extra-marital affair.
Hemming is also at the forefront of campaigning for more transparency in Family Courts so is well qualified to talk about secret justice.
This is what he said yesterday: “Whereas the police who perjured themselves in the Hillsborough case can be prosecuted it is difficult to prosecute people who lie in secret courts. The evidence in secret courts is unreliable.”
The ramifications of Hillsborough are huge. Cover-ups have happened and the blame process begins but one of the greatest lessons to be learned, especially for the police, is that the long arm of the people’s law will always get you in the end.