Two weeks ago I published a book, Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins – The Killing of Alison. The book is an unconventional, honest and deeply personal attempt to bring what has been hidden, into the light for all to see. As imperfect as it is, I am pleased I wrote it; it was such a cathartic experience. But I remain confused about the fact I had to write it. It’s a book nobody should need to write in a first world country like Britain.
Alison was a vulnerable mentally ill patient of the NHS when she was taken advantage of by an older male nurse. She became pregnant and a crisis abortion was arranged by the mental health hospital. Alison took her life on what would have been her child’s third birthday. Though the names are known, no one has ever been held accountable for the crimes committed against her. Alison and we her family, have been spectacularly and repeatedly failed by the NHS, Police and Crown Prosecution Service. I hope with all my heart you never find out what the denial of justice feels like.
As I wrote, the book turned into something other than I had imagined. It became a summary of a mix of experiences that had common cores running through them all. Honesty, integrity and authenticity. As I researched I read thousands of pages from a growing list of public sector post-tragedy reports; Gosforth, Mid-Staffs, Hillsborough, to name but three of what I labelled in my folders, a dossier of disaster. What struck me about the reports was their avoidance of humanity, as if each issue could be addressed by lengthy if ultimately doomed programmes of culture change. None of the reports highlighted the propensity of certain individuals to be amoral when it suited them. In fact, far from being chastised, the facilitators and perpetrators of wrongdoing were themselves somehow cast in the role of fellow victims, prey to target driven or collusive cultures. The harmful behaviours of individuals simply dressed-up as the logical result of broken organisations, not the result of people incapable of displaying personal agency or choice. It was as if the conclusion of each report was to highlight that nobody should be held accountable.
Why have too many of our public sector institutions become synonymous with spin, duplicity and evasiveness? We seem to have reached a point where we are shocked when someone is open and honest, how did the baseline of our expectations become so low? My family and I have never wanted punitive retribution against the perpetrator, those who accommodated his acts or those who ultimately concealed them. But wouldn’t it be great if they could just put their hands in the air and say, we fucked up and we are sorry.
Leadership matters, it makes a difference, for better or worse. But individual agency must also be acknowledged. While the book pays tribute to the many leaderless heroes on the frontline of our NHS and public services, it is scathing about the lack of honesty and integrity in the hierarchy and management of these services. It is a story of the abuse of power, the hiding of wrongdoing in culturally dysfunctional organisations and a quest for truth, accountability and justice that is not yet over…
We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes. Martin Luther King Jr.