Hillsborough, Jimmy Savile and the power of social media to do good

Jimmy Savile in 2006, leading the pipe band through Fort William to the Lochaber Highland Games in his capacity as Honorary Chieftain of the gamesIn some ways, it feels like we have had an autumn filled with some grim news. In particular I’d like to comment on two high profile stories – that of the Hillsborough cover up and the reported crimes of Jimmy Savile.

I think there are two themes here – that of excessive respect for authority, and the power of social media to do good. I would like to start by drawing comparison with the world of 30 years ago (the world I grew up in) and the world of today.

It goes without saying that the world of the 70′s and 80′s is very different from 2012. 30 years ago, the UK was still struggling with a post empire hangover and politics and the media was dominated by upper class (older) men with traditional perspectives. Of course one point of similarity is that of deep global economic recession – consistent across both periods.

Thirty years ago, there was still a real respect for authority; with people in power – whether they were politicians, senior policeman or newspaper editors, able to behave, if not with impunity, then something quite close to it.

Recently these three groups have been reined in – Politicians have been brought to earth by the expenses scandal, the press by the Leveson enquiry and the police by a combination of Leveson and the Independent Hillsborough Panel.

In 70′s, 80′s (and before) if you had, for example, a knighthood, this gave you a certain kind of protection or if you wanted it – a kind of invisibility. This was all part of the British culture of respect for ‘one’s betters’ , or the medieval ‘Droit du seigneur’ transcribed into a ‘slightly’ more modern era .

This is not only a British phenomenon – Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers   comments on how excessive respect for authority can have a very real effect on people’s health and safety, in other cultures . Gladwell looks at the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 over Long Island .

Gladwell argues that the Colombian pilots came from a culture with “a deep and abiding respect for authority” — which suggests that the first officer was reluctant to speak up when the exhausted captain failed to do so, and that both men failed to talk forcefully to the air traffic controllers, who were tough New Yorkers, unaccustomed to the pilots’ polite language.

Back to the UK. In the case of Savile - one BBC commentator observed that the astonishing thing was that his ‘alleged’ crimes – numerous and over an extended period, had never come to full public light. Of course, many will say that his ‘alleged’ activities were an open secret, all the more surprising then that they were not investigated, properly many years ago.

Mark Easton had an interesting take on this story, on the BBC website. Some of his observations:

“…All too rarely were these kinds of concerns taken to the authorities. In fact, one suspects that the police would have regarded accusations of such improper behaviour as domestic or trivial.

“It is obvious now that many young lives were seriously damaged by powerful men who took advantage of the new freedoms and opportunities, exploiting their position without thought for their responsibilities. The sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll philosophy glorified hedonic pleasure, living for the moment and to hell with the consequences’ …… .  ’

That is not to excuse the boorish, thoughtless or vile activities of powerful men who should have known better.

But it is a reminder of how far we have come and how recent some of those changes have been. We sometimes fail to notice how civilizing forces are improving people’s behaviour’

In the case of The Hillsborough disaster and subsequent Police cover-up, the people in authority were never properly questioned and the voices of ordinary people – in this case wrongly pilloried by the authorities and the media, were ignored.

Jack Straw had an interesting perspective on the Police of the 1980′s:

“The Thatcher Government, because they needed the police to be a partisan force, particularly for the miners’ strike and other industrial troubles, created a culture of impunity in the police service. ”They really were immune from outside influences and they could rule the roost. That is what we saw in South Yorkshire”, from the Week.

Whether you are in accord with this or not, surely there is a general perception about the way the police behaved at this time, and it’s not a very pleasant memory.

Modern culture often gets a kicking from established ‘organs’ of society , especially in the National Press. We hear about the decline in respect for established institutions – the monarchy, politicians, the church and teachers; and the rise in respect for less traditionally esteemed areas of society, such as consumer brands, celebrity culture, rap music and sport.

Social media is also often under fire for being a place where bullies and pedophiles can target their victims. Now, I am not suggesting that these concerns are all misplaced, but what about the distinct  benefits of our current digital society?

In this digital age, there is a greater level of approachability to those in authority – even David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch are on Twitter. The traditional class structure has broken down, and there is more movement and flexibility in our society. With this, there is less unquestioning respect for those in authority , the ‘famous’ or those in the public eye. In a world where we are all publishers, people have to behave better, or face the consequences. 

Consider this , just for a second -What would have happened if we had had Twitter in 1989 at Hillsborough? Would the truth about what really happened on that day have been kept secret for 23 years? What would have happened if we had had Facebook in the 70′s and 80′s? Surely the activities of people like Savile would have  come to light faster and other potential crimes averted.

We ought to stick up more, for today’s digitally democratic society and the positive influence of social media. There is a lot that is good about it.

Nick Hammond is thedigitalfilter.com and he blogs at thedigitalfilter.