Living in a democracy – an apparently open society – with elected representatives put in place to carry out the will of the people, you would think that fairness and justice should be built into the fabric of our island nations. However, the growing catalogue of media investigations and exposés, public outcries and inquiries, court reviews of evidence and private prosecutions, would indicate that all too often justice has to be fought for rather than enjoyed as an automatic right.
The recent Hillsborough Inquest is a definitive example of a fight for justice against the very system that was meant to provide it. Without trawling through all the details of what must be one of the darkest and most unsavoury episodes in living memory, there are clear parallels between the Hillsborough campaign and the fight for justice as experienced by the contaminated blood victims (including all infected people, their families and bereaved relatives).
Consider the following list that includes aspects and features of the Hillsborough disaster that have been interpreted so as to illustrate various points of commonality with the contaminated blood issue:
- At the time (of the football match) there were insufficient resources and capacity to adequately deal with a situation of public safety
- Safety considerations appeared to be secondary (the Hillsborough Stadium safety certificate was out of date, while in the case of possible blood borne viruses the blood supply was known to be at least at risk of contamination)
- The immediate response was to go into denial mode
- Key information was withheld, altered, lost or apparently destroyed by mistake
- A collection of different large institutions could have been at fault (in the case of Hillsborough these included South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield City Council, the Football Association, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the Ambulance Service, the stadium safety engineers, etc.)
- Governments over various parliamentary sessions refused requests for an independent inquiry or similar review despite growing demand and recommendations even from within statutory structures (such as select committees; all party parliamentary groups; public bill committees, etc.)
- An inquiry was held (in the Hillsborough case it was accelerated) which gave some hope to victims, but the main actions that actually followed involved changing the way things were done while there was much less of a focus on action towards accountability
- The government approach was to delay its response until another form of investigation would deflect blame or culpability (in the Hillsborough case the subsequent Coroner’s Inquest)
- Half-truths or latterly unreliable, discredited or outdated information sources were fed to the media and used as the basis for minimisation, delay, non-disclosure, non-accountability and deflecting attention away from the real issues
- Some individuals put in place to provide the independent insight were perceived as establishment figures, aloof from victims and their representatives, patronising and too aligned to the very powers under scrutiny
- Despite the weight of evidence, the possibility of prosecutions was explained away as being not in the public interest or lacking sufficient grounds
- Key individual campaigners dedicated endless hours over many years to do the job that should have been done by the prescribed authorities, although for some this itself took a terrible toll on their health and wellbeing
- Documents appeared belatedly that showed how elected politicians and officials (including some from the highest level of government) sought to minimise exposure to compensation claims by use of “spin” or non-committal responses during meetings with victim representatives and campaigners
- By the time a truly meaningful inquiry, inquest or other instrument was supported, many of the victims or campaigners had died and those possibly responsible had retired or were otherwise beyond the reach of accountability
- The language used by officials was carefully screened to avoid statutory bodies being exposed to claims of not meeting any apparent duty of care responsibilities (such as a resistance to words like ‘compensation’ being used)
- Victims, families and campaigners were apparently subject to surveillance and monitoring
- By the time any type of investigation was carried out it focussed on process issues which, due to the time delays, had long been resolved, thus it was possible for authorities to say that lessons had already been learned and changes made (in the case of Hillsborough relating to stadium design, in the case of contaminated blood relating to heat treatment and screening)
- There remained a suspicion that various named and unnamed individuals were being protected by the authorities, but such assertions are dismissed as conspiracy theorising
- A large proportion of those who were ‘unlawfully killed’ as a result of the Hillsborough disaster were young people who should been have expected to enjoy a full and long life. But even when including those who were older, they were all denied what most other people take for granted; family experiences, career development, security for their posterity, dignity, respect, fairness and justice
Sadly, this list could so easily be applied to many other campaigns and issues that are delayed until it is considered by the powers that be to be safe enough to expose the establishment to some degree of proper public scrutiny. Examples include:
- the Aberfan mining disaster
- Bloody Sunday
- the Alder Hey organ retention scandal
- the ‘Battle’ of Orgreave coking works
- the Chilcot/Iraq War Inquiry
- the Staffordshire Hospital scandal, etc.
While progress with the contaminated blood campaign is moving faster and in the right direction through Holyrood, well certainly when compared to Westminster, there are still unanswered questions to be addressed and support measures to be implemented, such as: the Stage 1 / Stage 2 discrimination, the matter of missing records, etc.
The Penrose Inquiry was meant to provide the full and final statement for Scotland on the contaminated blood disaster, but it didn’t. This was not the first public inquiry to be branded a ‘whitewash’ and sadly it might not be the last if history continues to repeat itself. Maybe another inquiry is not needed or is now not the best way forward, but somehow the campaigners feel their calls for answers and justice have not been fully satisfied; not yet anyway.
For the Hillsborough families it took 27 years to get at least a degree of closure. For the contaminated blood campaigners it’s been 20, 30, even 40 years for some. Given the numerous examples of officialdom’s intransigence in connection with these types of situations, the question hangs in the air (like the vernacular ‘bad smell’), will we ever achieve full disclosure, full accountability, full justice, and full, fair financial support for all affected patient victims and their families?
We, who are lucky to live, live in hope.