Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) adds a note of caution following the outcome of the Hillsborough Inquiry:
It is absolutely understandable that people will be celebrating the hard work and commitment of the families who have suffered so much over such a long period of time. And to recognise too, that some public figures who now praise them have for many years continued to doubt their campaign and their account of what transpired and challenged their claims that the Police covered up what happened.
Learning lessons from this will not be straightforward. There are many lessons, but there is one which is common to campaigns of this type. It is about commitment and dedication of those most affected by what has happened. Their resolve is the most significant lesson which is so evident. It is what links other campaigns against injustice. Supportive journalists and dedicated academics play their part but they do not sustain campaigns. Those of us on the fringe can be supportive but our actions are tiny in comparison.
Why is this lesson important? The work of Professor Phil Scraton and his colleagues has been important there is no doubt about that. I am sure that he would not over state his part. And yes journalists and politicians have played their part too. Nevertheless, if we think that academics are essential in campaigns like Hillsborough, we should examine the current context.
One of the worrying aspects of the last 20 years in Higher Education has been the drift towards conformity. A recent report in the Times Higher described how in science research, there was some evidence that so called blue skies thinking proposals were being rejected because they challenged existing paradigms. To his credit Phil and his team consistently challenged a range of state actors from the police to the coroners court to the mass media.
In an age where we are becoming more risk averse would we support this work now? Would we fund such challenging academic research?
As the present government make it harder for charities to question government policy if they have received funding from the state, and the implication is that this might move across into HE, can we be sure that the next Phil Scraton would be supported in work which at the time did not just question a paradigm but the actions of a state agency (the Police) who were supported – especially in South Yorkshire- by the Thatcher Government. Protecting such intellectual freedom is precious for all of us. How secure is it?