National disgrace is a term often bandied around lightly. But if ever it was truly merited, the Aberfan disaster of 50 years ago was just that.
As a football-mad six-year-old boy at the time, I can’t remember England winning the World Cup but I can remember the news reports of the Aberfan disaster just four months later, and the heart-rending mass funeral of the victims shortly afterwards.
It was seared in the memory of all parents at the time and even schoolkids like me, as 116 of the 144 victims were roughly my age.
The excellent recent TV documentaries looking back tell a remarkable story of corporate irresponsibility and indifference. For me, it also shone a light on how much society’s respect and response to authority has changed in the intervening years.
Today’s health and safety culture may be bemoaned by some, but it does ensure that it is now unthinkable that such a disaster could happened today. Aberfan was a man-made disaster fuelled by corporate incompetence, with the National Coal Board and the government locked together in self-interest.
However, the public outrage back then seems mild by comparison to, say, the Hillsborough campaign of more recent times.
So what has changed?
The all-pervasive rise of social media coupled with the news-hungry 24-hour rolling news channels have changed forever how we react, and inter-act, with those in authority. An old boss of mine used to say we now live in an age of “reference, not deference”.
In our everyday lives if we are lucky to stay at a five-star hotel, those five stars in themselves are not enough for most of us. We want to see what others say about it on TripAdvisor as well – that’s probably more important than any “establishment” hallmark. We don’t really trust the establishment in the way we used to.
And so the public’s respect for politicians and senior management has similarly eroded over the years. The demand for accountability and responsibility is overwhelming. Reputation management is all important, with good reason.
Despite the searing verdict of the Aberfan public inquiry on the National Coal Board – “a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude” – its aloof chairman Lord Robens somehow stayed in his job.
There was outrage in the Aberfan community, but it was a dignified outrage coupled with a form of stoicism unique to the long-suffering mining communities. It is hard to imagine the reaction would be similar today.
Lord Robens wasn’t trolled on Twitter or confronted at his home by a Sky News crew, as would undoubtedly happen today.
As older generations are fond of saying, “there’s no respect any more”. They have a point, but perhaps it has helped save lives, and that’s no bad thing.