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Fostering Awareness of Public Inquiries

In this post we address the importance of public awareness surrounding inquiries, and how this awareness can increase the relevance and impact of these investigations. A recent Guardian article, written by ‘Alison’*, states the importance of the public’s consciousness of inquiries, as it keeps the spotlight on those under investigation. The article explores the representation of public inquiries in a new BBC crime drama ‘Sherwood’. While it is noted that the series fails to address the abuses of spy cops, which often occur in secret operations, the series does encourage conversations on publicising and spreading awareness of these investigations and challenging institutional power. 

*(one of eight women who first took legal action against the Metropolitan police over the conduct of undercover officers and a founder member of Police Spies Out of Lives)

Alison was concerned that a lack of public consciousness of the spy cops issue had led to it dropping down the political agenda. Recently Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary to the Home Office, remarked – whilst responding to questions surrounding the substantial cost and length of the inquiry – that

“The Home Secretary could choose to close [it] down.”

Threats to close down essential inquiries into state officials and institutions fundamentally threatens the process of justice. Removing systems of official accountability from those in power perpetuates the idea that elite figures are above the law. To ensure that funding is not cut from these investigations, ‘Alison’ states that ‘the public must be watching the inquiry’s progress. The more people understand about what the spy cops did, the more important and more relevant the inquiry will become.’

The Guardian article also addressed the involvement of human rights lawyers. A number of human rights lawyers have sought to use the British judicial system to challenge to human rights atrocities, not just in the case of spying on union workers (featured in the Sherwood series), but also in other cases, such as the IHAT investigation of Iraq war crimes. However, state attempts to challenge these lawyers’ efforts has helped to perpetuate criticism of inquiries, and thus preventing the public from holding institutions to account for past corruption and unlawful action. 

Norris and Shepheard’s research into the roles of public inquiries emphasises how future policy makers can benefit from inquiry processes, especially when state institutions’ decisions are scrutinised. They argue that inquiries can ‘drive cultural change; in some cases they have had a profound effect on behaviours and attitudes. The most remarkable example of this is the way the Macpherson report – which investigated the death of Stephen Lawrence – helped to establish the concept of ‘institutional racism’ within the public consciousness.’

However, the benefits of public inquiries must also be balanced with recognition of their function as an instrument of state power. Our project nuances the current debates on public inquiries by considering how they protect the status quo of the liberal democratic state, whilst preventing structural change. Our project also highlights the cultural causes behind these crimes under inquiry. Exposing the root causes of these abuses and military atrocities entrenched in our culture will better our understandings of harmful state structures and enable meaningful systemic change.

Incoming educational resources created from our archival documents will further encourage the public conversation surrounding the importance of public inquiries, through familiarising students with navigating archives and enhancing critical thinking processes. 

Further reading recommendations:

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