Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Hillsborough report 23 years on

I'm listening right now to the news report on the review of the Hillsborough disaster from 23 years. ago. I have heard terms including "betrayed", "dreadful mistakes were made", "lies" and "shift blame" (all BBC News at Ten). There is talk of "cover up", and people not admitting to mistakes made.

Families of the victims seem to be saying that they were never looking for compensation but that they wanted to be heard, and they want to know the truth. Being heard seems to be so important; if we do not hear then we do not learn; if we do not learn then we cannot change practices for the better. Maybe for some compensation is important, but for many others all that matters is that the tragedy should not have been in vain.

Earlier today, in a different context, a colleague was arguing that we need people to be "accountable" for their actions and decisions, that people need to be punished for mistakes. But we all make mistakes, repeatedly and often amusingly; for example, this evening, I phoned one daughter thinking I was phoning the other one, and because I was so sure I knew who I was talking to, and because we have a lot of "common ground", it took us both a while to realise my error. We could both laugh about it. Errordiary documents lots of equally amusing mistakes. But occasionally, mistakes have unfortunate consequences. Hillsborough is a stark reminder of this. Does unfortunate consequences automatically mean that the people who made mistakes should be punished for them? Surely covering up mistakes is even more serious than making errors in the first place. How much could we have learned (and how much easier would it have been for families to have recovered) if those responsible had not covered up and avoided being accountable? Here, I want to use the term "accountable" in a much more positive sense, meaning that they were able to account for the decisions that they made, based on the information and goals that they had at the time.

Being accountable currently seems to be about assigning blame; maybe this is sometimes appropriate – particularly if the individual or organisation in question has not learned from previous analogous incidents. But maybe sometimes learning from mistakes is of more long term value than punishing people for them. That implies a different understanding of "accountable". We need to find a better balance between blame and learning. Unless I am much mistaken.

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