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What price justice?

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales.  Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%.  This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16.  The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately. 

I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story.  Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines.  The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights.  Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein?  Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.

My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him.  As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft.  Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court.  As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury.  The judicial system has moved a long way since then.  Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases.  Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency.  Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims.  The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years.  Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.

My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it.  The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice.  To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.   

How I became an evil man

My love of poetry came in my sleep like a dream, a fever I could not escape and in little hours of the day I would read some poetry from different people who voice the volume of their emotions with words.  In one of those poems by Elleni Vakalo How he became a bad man, she introduced me to a new understanding of criminological thinking.  The idea of consequences, that lead a seemingly good person to become bad, without the usual motivational factors, other than fear.  This was the main catalyst that became the source of this man’s turn to the bad. 

This almost surrealistic description of criminal motivation has since fascinated me.  It is incredibly focused, devoid of social motivations and personal blame.  In fact, it demonstrates a social cognition that once activated is powerful enough to lead a seemingly decent person to behave in uncharacteristic moves of violence.  This interesting perspective was forged during the war and the post war turmoil experienced.  Like Camus, the act of evil is presented as a matter of fact and the product of thoughts that are originally innocent and even non-threatening. 

The realisation in this way of thinking, is not the normalisation of violence, but the simplicity that violence in innate to everyone. The person who commits it, is not born for it, does not carry an elaborate personal story or trauma and has no personal compulsion to do it. In some ways, this violence is more terrifying, as criminality can be the product of any person without any significant predispositions, an everyday occurrence that can happen any time.

The couple that will meet, fall in love, cohabit, and get married, starting a family, follow all the normal everyday stages that millions of people follow or feel socially obliged to follow.  In no part of this process do they discuss how he will control her, demean her, call her names, slap her, hit her or kick her. There is no plan or discussion of how terrified she will become, socially isolated and humiliated.  At no point in the planning, will she be thinking of ways to exit their home, access helplines or spend a day in court.  It happens, as a product of small thoughts and expressed emotions, that convert into micro aggressions, that become overt hostility, that leads to violence.  No significant changes, just a series of events that lead to a prolonged suffering. 

In some way, this matter of fact violence explains the confusion the victims feel, trapped in a relationship that they cannot recognise as abusive, because all other parts fall under the normality of everyday life. Of course, in these situations, emotion plays a key role and in a way that rearranges logic and reason. We are driven by emotion and if we are to leave criminological theory for a minute a series of decisions, we will make daily take a journey from logic to emotions and back.

This emotional change, the manifestation of thoughts is not always criminal nor destructive. The parents who are willing to fight an entire medical profession so that their newborn has a fighting chance are armed with emotion.  Many stories come to mind of those who owe their lives to their determination of their parents who fought logic and against the odds, fought to keep them alive.  Friends and partners of people who have been written off by the criminal justice system that assessed them as high risk for society and stuck with them, holding on to emotion as logic departs. 

In Criminology, we talk about facts and figures, we consider theories and situations, but above all as a social science we recognise that we deal with people; people without emotions do not exist.  So how do you/how do I become a bad man?  Simple…the same way you are/I am a good man. 

This is the poem by Eleni Vakalo, with my painful translation:

How He Became A Bad Man

I will tell you how it happened
In that order
A good little man met on his way
a battered man
the man was so close from him laying
he felt sad for him
He was so sad
That he became frightened
Before approaching him to bend down to
help him, he thought better
“What do you want, what are you looking for”
Someone else will be found by so many around here,
to assist this poor soul
And actually
I have never seen him
And because he was scared
So he thought
Would he not be guilty, after all no one is hit without being guilty?
And they did him good since he wanted to play with the nobles
So he started as well
To hit him
Beginning of the fairy tale
Good morning

Nothing is black and white: the intransigence of fools

“Burglar!” by Maydela is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.

Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.

When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive.  Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS.  Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me.  Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim.  Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.

Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance.  Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing.  What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.

Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times.  Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand.  That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.

The victimisation of one

One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions.  Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one. 

Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience.  It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives.  To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story. 

Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal.  Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.  Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations). 

Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten.  Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure.  In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents.  Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried. 

Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged.  The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut.  In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced.  Likewise, the McGann family did the same.  Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one.  Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced.  This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind. 

Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted.  People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation.  Then there are those whose experience was not even counted.  In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery.  In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery. 

Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence.  Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with.  These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves.  Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery.  At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed.  In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved?  Have we heard their voices?  Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives.  It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves.  The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read. 

In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri.  Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation.  These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget. 

“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24.  […] My father come from Perry County.  He wus named Abernathy.  My father’s father was a white man.  My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold.  De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans.  Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers.  This was 1832.  De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit.  Dey had six boys.  […] I ve been living here since de Civil War.  Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot.  What I think ‘bout slavery?  Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”. 

Hannah Allen

“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.  I had two sisters and three brothers.  One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919.  His name was Spot.  My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs.  Slavery was a mighty hard life.  Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children.  I nursed in da family one year.  Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children.  I nurse there two years.  Neither family was nice to me.” 

Mary Bell

When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand?  In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn.  Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.    

References

Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford

Stop Protecting the #PervertPrince

In the past six months, I have been reflecting on recent stories that have hit media headlines. Although these topics are extremely important, in my opinion not enough “meaningful” discussion has been had. I’m referring to the sexual exploitation of children – the power imbalance, that powerful men within society have abused and have seeming got away with. I start with Jeffrey Epstein.

Although he was convicted of sexual crimes against children, his conviction is one of deceit. The American justice system let down his victims, disguising the severity of his crimes, allowing him to continue his abuse of power on vulnerable children. He was not charged with paedophilia or rape, the US legal system thought it would be fitting to charge him with solicitation of minors for prostitution.

There are various things that are problematic with this, but one of the biggest problems for me is using minors and prostitution in the same sentence. It annoys me that we tend to view our society as progressive and yet we still label children as prostitutes, forgetting that there is a legal age of consent and no child can be a prostitute as they cannot give consent, as much as the law would suggest. This is reminiscent of the Rotherham sex ring, where police labelled minors as prostitutes, forgetting that they are victims of coercion, exploitation and rape. This ideology quickly moves the emphasis away from the perpetrators of crime while negatively impacting the victim.  It is time that we have compassion for the victims of such awful crimes and move away from labelling and blaming.

It makes my blood boil that people have the audacity to argue that the US legal systems failings can be used as an outlet of blame for the relationship that Epstein, Prince Andrew and President Clinton had.  Lady Colin Campbell stated that if the US legal system had been more transparent Clinton and the shamed Prince would have made better judgements on their friendship with him. She and others have come to this defence of the ‘upper crust,’ using the American justice system failings as a crutch for their wrongdoings.

Although some may agree with her, I must highlight some glaring points that should be raised, before she states such ludicrous statements – such as: Prince Andrew and Bill Clinton’s advisors would have done thorough background checks on Epstein. This would have identified his crimes and his monstrous ways. They would have disclosed the information that was flagged to them and then warned them against forming relationships with the known predator. If these men had any shred of decency, then they would have kept a distance.

My conclusion as to why they did not, is because they feel they are above the law and do not have to conform to the norms that the rest of society subscribes too. It is all about money and status to them, if you are not one of them, you are not human. This notion was visible when Prince Andrew had his very uncomfortable interview with Emily Maitlis. During the interview he never displayed any kind of remorse for the victims. He didn’t even mention them or their harm. He used phrases like Epstein engaged in activity that is unbecoming rather than condemning his actions and showing any kind of emotion. This reaction, or lack of, has only stretched his credibility. He blazingly lied throughout the interview and his actions have made him look like a bumbling pervert. 

Even though Prince Andrew has demonstrated a lack of morality, the biggest discussion that surrounds this entity is whether he should step down from his royal duties. It seems everyone forgets that he has shown a lack of compassion, he has been pictured with young girls who have accused him and Epstein of violating them. But being a prince trumps all these facts, as he is let off lightly.

He is rich and powerful, and like Epstein, their status has sheltered them from real-world consequences. Epstein is now deceased, but it was all on his terms and once again the victimisation of children has been overshadowed by the circumstances of how he died. The salacious topic of how he managed to commit suicide and whether he was murdered is now big news. As for Prince Andrew, I cannot imagine he will be found guilty and he will not speak publicly about this topic again. Some may demand answers, but he will be protected from any real justice.

It is time that we start opening our eyes and acknowledging the victims of these crime. It is time to make it known that just because you are royalty, a billionaire or a socialite you are not above the law. We need to fight for the voiceless in our society, against the people who abuse their power and stop making excuses for them. 

Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

A little case of murder

In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children.  At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.

So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes[1]” allegedly for a relationship or something serious.  The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of.  In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold. 

The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing.  Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”.  For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.   

Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different.  In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened.  Seven people went missing.  How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants.  At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick!  One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!

In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it.  I shall stand on what we know.  He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques.  He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career.  A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales.  Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations. 

What about the wider picture?  To put the whole case in some perspective.  The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing.  In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms.  A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone?  In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue.  The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy.  The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of.  Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers.  The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible.  In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising.  In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology.  The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society. 

After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away. 

Harris LT, Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan Fiske, London, Routledge. 


[1] A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name! 

Hillsborough 30 years on. A case study in liberating the truth

https://twitter.com/lfc/status/

Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton

Before I start this blog, it is important to declare my personal position. I am a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) and had I not been at a friend’s wedding on that fatal Saturday in April 1989, I may well have been in the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. I have followed the unfolding Hillsborough phenomenon for 30 years now and like the football club itself, it is an integral part of my life. To all caught up in the horrific events of Hillsborough, I echo a phrase synonymous with LFC and say; “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

On April 15th, 1989 ninety-six men, women and children, supporters of Liverpool Football Club, died in a severe crush at an FA Cup semi-final at the Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield. Hundreds were injured, and thousands traumatised. Within hours, the causes and circumstances of the disaster were being contested. While an initial judicial inquiry found serious institutional failures in the policing and management of the capacity crowd, no criminal prosecutions resulted, and the inquests returned ‘accidental death’ verdicts. Immediately, the authorities claimed that drunken, violent fans had caused the fatal crush. In the days and weeks following the disaster, police fed false stories to the press suggesting that hooliganism and drunkenness by Liverpool supporters were the root causes of the disaster. The media briefing was most significantly demonstrated in the headline “THE TRUTH” which appeared in The Sun newspaper immediately after the event devoting its front page to the story and reporting that: ‘Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving life kiss’. What of course we appreciate now is that this headline was far from truth, however the blame narrative was already being set. For example, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the match commander on the day, misinformed senior officials from the Football Association that fans had forced entry causing an inrush into already packed stadium pens. Yet it was Duckenfield who had ordered the opening of the gates to relieve the crush at the turnstiles. Within minutes the lie was broadcast internationally.

Blaming of Liverpool fans persisted even after the Taylor Report of 1990, which found that the main cause of the disaster was a profound failure in police control. While directing its most damning conclusions towards the South Yorkshire Police, it also criticised Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, its safety engineers and Sheffield City Council. However, following the Taylor Report, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled there was no evidence to justify prosecution of any individuals or institutions. On a more positive note, the disaster did lead to safety improvements in the largest English football grounds, notably the elimination of fenced terraces in favour of all seated stadiums.With the media allegations unchallenged and in the absence of any imminent prosecutions the families of the 96 hugely supported by the people of the City of Liverpool and it’s two football clubs began an exerted and prolonged campaign for truth and justice. In late June 1997, soon after the election of the Labour Government and following a concerted campaign by families, the Home Secretary Jack Straw proposed an unprecedented judicial scrutiny of any new evidence and appointed senior appeal court judge and former MI6 Commissioner Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to review further material that interested parties wished to submit. A large volume of new material was presented. However, Stuart-Smith rejected the new evidence concluding that there was no basis for a further public inquiry or new material of interest to the DPP or police disciplinary authorities. Undeterred by such a devastating outcome the families undertook a series of private prosecutions again to no avail.

It is important to note that public inquiries, convened in the aftermath of major incidents such as Hillsborough or to address alleged irregularities or failures in the administration of justice, should not be considered a panacea but provide an opportunity to speedily ensure that management failings are exposed to public scrutiny. They are popularly perceived to be objective and politically independent.  On the other hand, they also have the potential to act as a convenient mechanism of legitimation for the state. It appeared to the families that the various inquiries that followed Hillsborough were incapable of surfacing the truth as the cards were stacked in favour of the state.

Roll forward to 2009. On the 20th anniversary, invited by the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Minister for Health Andy Burnham MP addressed over 30,000 people attending the annual memorial service at Liverpool FC’s Anfield stadium. Whilst acknowledging the dignity, resolve and courage they had exhibited in all the events of the previous 20 years he offered support and hope that their struggle would be further supported by the MPs in Liverpool as a whole. The cries of “Justice for the 96” that rang out that day heralded a turning point. Consequently, in December 2009, following the families unrelenting campaign, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, was appointed to chair the Hillsborough Independent Panel. It was given unfettered access to all the documentation that had been generated in all the enquiries and investigations to date. The outcomes of their deliberations were presented in closed session to the bereaved families at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on 12 September 2012, the report concluded that there was no evidence among the vast documentation to support or verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, fans with no tickets or violence. The bereaved families and survivors were overwhelmed by the unqualified exoneration of those who died and survived. Shortly after, the Prime Minister David Cameron responded in detail to a packed House of Commons. He made a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years. In April 2016, a special Coroner’s Court ruled that the Hillsborough dead had been unlawfully killed and a campaign for justice that had run for well over two decades was concluded.

This year will be the 30th anniversary of that tragic event and I believe it is fair to say that the ensuing years have provided us with a troubling case study with features of institutional cover up, the power of the state, the Establishment, the resilience of the victim’s families, community and a social movement which Scraton (1999, 2013) refers to as an alternative method for liberating truth, securing acknowledgement and pursuing justice. Scraton has written extensively on the disaster and the subsequent events. He draws on human rights discourse to show how ‘regimes of truth’ operate to protect and sustain the interests of the ‘powerful’. He examined in detail the formal legal processes and their outcomes regarding Hillsborough and demonstrated how they were manipulated to degrade the truth and deny justice to the bereaved. He exposed the procedural and structural inadequacies of these processes and raised fundamental questions about the legal and political accountability of the instruments of authority. The broader socio/legal policy question that emerges from Hillsborough is whether ‘truth’ can ever be acknowledged and institutionalized injustices reconciled in a timely fashion when the force of the state apparatus works to differing ends. Time will only tell. In 2019 there are many other tragic examples where we could replace Hillsborough with Orgreave, Lawrence, Windrush, Grenfell. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take 30 years for truth and justice to emerge in the future.

References

Scraton P., (1999) Policing with Contempt: The Degrading of Truth and Denial of Justice in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster.  Journal of Law and Society 26, 3, p273-297

Scraton P., (2013) The Legacy of Hillsborough: liberating truth, challenging power Race and Class, 55, 2, p1-27

Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?

A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology.  I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah.  As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.

In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked.  As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work).  The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way.  These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.

There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm.  I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values.  Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms.  To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known.  I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.

As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do.  I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university.  That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience. 

Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend.  Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.   

Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request.  My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk.  Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere.  And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time.  Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!

The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

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