I understand something of the frustration and anger of the relatives of the Hillsborough victims because I had a similar experience – albeit on a much smaller scale. British officialdom has a cult of secrecy and cover-up that is still with us, even if is has gotten slightly better.
In 1982 my younger brother Gary, 21, was killed. He was beaten up and died of a heart attack. Officialdom made this horrible situation worse by acts of secrecy.
Gary had a heart condition – he’d had rheumatic fever twice as a child – the first time undiagnosed by our GP. The second bout damaged his heart valves. He’d been receiving treatment ever since, but was an otherwise fit and active young man. He’d been given the OK to play football, which he did for a local club.
On the night he died he’d been out with his mates and gotten into an argument with the man who killed him. Later, Gary was attacked and badly beaten and died. The man was subsequently convicted of GBH and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
There were two areas of concern to me and my family in which we were completely stone-walled by the authorities.
The first was Gary’s heart condition. Why should his beating, which whilst vicious didn’t appear by itself to be life threatening, kill him? Was his heart condition much worse than the doctors thought? We asked to see both the post-mortem report and his medical records, to try to understand how this could have happened. The Coroner refused to release them, and in those days the only way to challenge this was to go to the High Court, something we couldn’t possibly afford. We never did get access and this left a long-standing sense of grievance.
The second was why was Gary’s killer only charged with GBH? In similar circumstances it seemed to us he would have been charged with manslaughter. Our suspicion was that the prosecution had done a “plea bargain” – he did plead guilty. Again, of course no-one would say what had happened.
These are two examples of lack of official transparency – and lack of any accountability mechanism by which the Coroner and prosecutors could be called to account. Our family, like the Hillsborough families, suffered more than was necessary. the tragic death of a boyfriend, brother and son was bad enough – but to be denied the truth on these two vital issues made it worse.
British public administration culture is not the most secretive in the world, but it does try hard. I continue to do battle with Whitehall with my ‘research’ hat on to try to get at what has really happened in decision processes that ought to be public. When it gets personal, as for the Hillsborough relatives and my family, this situation is completely unacceptable. Hopefully we are moving towards a different era, but slowly and haltingly. Some in Whitehall still cling to the idea we should repeal the Freedom of Information Act.