Public inquiries: a way to draw a line in the sand, or avoid accountability?

When gross negligence occurs in a hospital or a public organisation is suspected of acting inappropriately in a murder investigation, the victims’ families often want to hold someone accountable. For them, public inquiries are a chance for those responsible to apologise. Dr James Murphy from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) researches the language used in public inquiries and the role blame plays in them. He has discovered that the victims’ loved ones do not always get the outcome they expected.

Over a six-month period in 2007 and 2008, more than 30 people died in three hospitals in an area of Northern Ireland as a result of an outbreak of the hospital-acquired infection Clostridium difficile. The bacterium also infected several other patients, making them severely ill. It later emerged that poor hygiene and lack of information for patients and their families meant the infection was not contained in one part of the hospital. A subsequent public inquiry was set up to find out why this happened.

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Dr James Murphy, who is senior lecturer in English language and linguistics at UWE Bristol, researches how such public inquiries are conducted, how blame is attributed, and how apologies are expressed. He has examined the C. difficile case, and other public inquiries such as the Bichard Report (which asked why the necessary background checks were not made before a school employed Ian Huntley as a caretaker – he later murdered two 10-year-old girls).

In the case of the hospital-acquired infection, the inquiry invited two distinct groups of witnesses: the blameless family members of the victims, and a second group of hospital staff who were potentially blameable for the spread of the infection. Murphy assessed the linguistic aspect of the questioning. Although he expected that the hospital employees would be interrogated in the same way as defendants in a criminal court, and that family members would be treated like friendly witnesses, he found the opposite happened.

Instead, family members (often still in trauma) were questioned with closed, leading questions, similar to prosecution questioning in court. This, says Murphy, was simply so that the inquiry could confirm facts in the case. Meanwhile investigators asked hospital staff open, less-restricted questions. Murphy says this was to gather more evidence to help the inquiry identify who was responsible.

The academic has also learned that public inquiries are framed in a way that shies away from blaming anybody. “A lot of families expect someone to take responsibility for what they have suffered,” explains Murphy. “However public inquiries are not necessarily allowed to blame anyone.” He explains that blame is often more implicit in inquiries, which by highlighting lessons learned, imply that someone did something wrong and is potentially to blame.

Apologies are also invariably avoided in such investigations, finds Murphy. “When people are asked to apologise, they often have a carefully crafted statement demonstrating sympathy or regret, without taking responsibility,” he explains. “On the whole in inquiries, people don’t apologise because they fear that, in doing so, they risk public litigation,” says the linguistics expert.

Murphy also found that those who could be blamed, usually do a lot of preparation work on how to deliver their answers before attending a public inquiry. “There is a lot of rehearsal beforehand,” he says. Families, on the other hand, are often less clear about what to expect.

In fact, Murphy’s most striking discovery is the disconnect between family members’ expectations from a public inquiry and what they get at the end. “They see it as a line in the sand whereby they can discover who was responsible and can then move on,” says the academic. However, the reports they receive after the process are too often legalistic, hard to read, and careful about how they frame the findings. “The families want a direct and straightforward result, but what they get is something indirect and implicit,” he explains. This can sometimes leave them feeling like there has been a cover-up, says Murphy.

To address the issues in public inquiries, James Murphy is writing a book, due out in 2018, called, ‘The Discursive Construction of Blame: Language at Public Inquiries.’ The academic hopes it will influence policy and positively impact how public inquiry reporting can be improved and how victims and their families can better prepare for their involvement in proceedings.

Says Murphy: “Public inquiries are a strong representation of our democracy. Historically we might have lynched somebody we thought was to blame, but public inquiries represent the rational end of blame and is the endpoint of how we’ve developed as a society.”

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