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After the night before... Taking investigations seriously.

So, the scenes of chaos at the Emirates last week (Arsenal v Cologne Europa League game) are going to be the subject of a “full investigation”.


As one of those tens of thousands of Gooners who found that their home seats had apparently been recategorised as part of the away end, I should be pleased. It is a long time since I have spent a less enjoyable evening at the football (and as an Arsenal season ticket holder, that says a lot). But forgive me if I greet the announcement with a touch of cynicism.

To begin with, it really doesn’t need an investigation to identify the underlying cause of the problem. For all the media portrayal of drunken German ultras overwhelming underprepared security staff, the truth is more prosaic. The Cologne fans did not storm anywhere: they bought their tickets.

Predictably, Arsenal has expressed shock that touts had been operating. Clearly, no-one from the club has ever walked down the Hornsey Road on the way to a game. Nor should it be a surprise that there were Arsenal fans willing to sell on their tickets: the official attendance figures cannot disguise the inexorable increase in the number of empty seats at home games and the number of seats filled not with die-hard fans but with football tourists — people who turn up ten minutes after kick-off, clutching bags stuffed with overpriced Arsenal branded sportswear, and watch the game from behind their mobile phone screens.

Emirates Stadium (Flickr / Paul Hudson)

Some Arsenal fans, paying the highest prices in Western Europe and served up, of late, some indifferent fare, are voting with their feet (or rather, with their backsides) and simply not turning up. They don’t want to give up their season ticket — the wait to get a new one is nearly a decade long — but they are willing to select the games they want to go to and sell their tickets for the rest. For them, after 20 years of Champions League football, a Thursday night in the Europa Leagues was never going to cut it. Sure, the club may not like them using touts to recoup some of their sunk season ticket cost, but so what? An owner who has been so naked in his economic exploitation of the fan base cannot complain if the fans, in turn, seek economic advantage from their ticket ownership.

But my more serious reason for cynicism about the announcement is rooted in the term “investigation”. As the furores about the Grenfell Tower enquiry and the investigation into the running of the England Women’s football team have shown, announcing an investigation may seem a good PR move, but it will not necessarily solve your problems. If the investigation terms of reference are not clear and credible; if there is no guarantee of input from all interested parties; if there is no promise of true independence; and if the conclusions are not made publicly available — then your initiative will be dismissed as a mere PR stunt. And if you entrust your investigation to someone, no matter how eminent and learned, who has no real knowledge and experience of how to structure and manage an effective investigation process, the result will be a disaster.

Take the enquiry into the institutional handling of child sexual abuse announced by Theresa May (then Home Secretary) in 2014. The first two chairs — a law lord and a solicitor — had to resign within a matter of months because they were seen to be too closely tied into some of the key individuals involved; the third, a New Zealand judge, lasted longer but also resigned in 2016 because of difficulty in balancing her work on the inquiry with her life in New Zealand. By November 2016, many of the other senior lawyers staffing the enquiry had also gone and the body representing the largest group of abuse survivors withdrew from the process, describing it as “a debacle”.

The truth is that mounting an investigation is a technical process — not easy, but a skill which can be learned. There are many good models out there: in the UK and abroad. I should know — having twice had to set up and run investigation and redress schemes, I have spent a goodly part of my life researching what other people were doing well (and doing badly) in order to learn how my new organisations should go about it. So it is really frustrating watching the same errors being made: rushed announcements; lack of clarity on remit and timescale; failure to consult and involve victims or other stakeholders; the appointment of someone with a title but no investigation experience (almost always a lawyer, unless the issues are medical, in which case it is a doctor); and unwillingness to publish the full results.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for investigations. After all, the alternative is sweeping stuff under the carpet. But if we are truly committed to trying to understand what went wrong and how to stop it going wrong again in the future, we need to take the investigation process equally seriously.🔷


(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Garry Knight, #MayMustGo protest at Downing Street - 17 June 2017.)


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Now a consultant and non-exec, Adam Sampson has had a long career in the voluntary and public sector, including spells as CEO of Shelter and Chief Legal Ombudsman.
London, UK