Law must navigate the treacherous social media seas
Commercial aviation is the safest form of travel because the industry has learnt from past accidents by abolishing the culture of blame.
The Costa Concordia disaster is the cruise ship industry’s chance to improve safety and ensure that avoidable tragedy never happens again, but that chance will be missed if only one man pays the price.
In Italian courtrooms there is a sign which suggests: La legge e’ uguale per tutti – the law is the same for everyone. There is no asterisk on the sign, though it should be noted the term “everyone: does in fact mean “everyone except some”, including former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who conveniently changed the law while in office to spare himself prosecution, and, more recently, the captain of the Costa Concordia Francesco Schettino, who shall be afforded no such privilege.
But who needs a healthy judicial system when Schettino’s guilty as sin? And we know he’s guilty as sin because we’ve read all about his cowardice in newspapers, on Twitter and on a tacky, tasteless T-shirt.
We’ve seen it on telly and heard the damning coast guard recordings released before his trial. Hmm, this justice lark is a waste of time and money – let’s just yank the pirate-captain’s lapels off and have him walk the plank!
We don’t write it on our courthouse walls, yet our own supposed mantra when it comes to justice – innocent until proven guilty – appears to have abandoned ship in this case.
It has been virtually impossible not to be swept along in Schettino’s character assassination and trial by media. Ironically, as the internet is doing wonders for social and political justice in the Middle East, questions need to be asked about its effects on criminal justice in the West.
The internet can facilitate truth but can also distort it. As infotainment fanatics, conduits of the news, it’s never been simpler to jump on the bandwagon.
We don’t wait for the truth to emerge like we used to, we share pictures and opinions of what’s happened in the moments after it happened. A picture might tell a thousand words, but it’s still worth reading those thousand words.
Where on earth, quite literally, will a jury be found which doesn’t believe Schettino to be the Lucifer of luxury liners?
Already on the internet he has been christened ‘the most hated man in Italy’. Parodies on YouTube have him dressed as a pirate. Even sober websites and newspapers have gone light on the word “allegedly”.
Schettino might well turn out to live up to his reputation, but surely he deserves a fair trial. In commercial transport accidents, the actions of one person don’t always account for the whole truth. The Titanic was ordered to accelerate because it would do the company proud, but it was the captain who steered the ship into the iceberg.
Numerous aviation disasters, after the most superficial autopsy, can be attributed to the improper actions of one person. Yet further investigation reveals a sequence of events which the pilot’s actions merely bring to a head but are not the sole cause.
In some crashes, corporate pressure has been applied on pilots to stick to schedules and perform manoeuvres that their training would otherwise outlaw, yet they proceed because it’s the culture of the company, because they got away with it last time, because they need to fit in, to protect their jobs, to stay in the holding pattern for promotion.
Human error seems the most likely reason for this tragedy but is it the sole cause?
Further analysis of the accident could well confirm that Schettino is guilty of taking it upon himself to perform a maverick manoeuvre resulting in manslaughter, as well as the cardinal sin for a captain of not being the last to leave his ship. In which case he should go down.
However, his claims that he was ordered by Costa Cruises to perform the maritime equivalent of buzzing the tower are worthy of investigation.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa published a letter from the mayor of Giglio (the town on the island of the same name) thanking a former captain of the Concordia for the “incredible spectacle” of sailing the behemoth ship close to his coastline and blasting the horn.
What a party pooper Schettino would be if he refused to perform what former colleagues had not only performed but been thanked for in writing. Perhaps his colleagues would question his skill as much as his nerve. And perhaps his bosses would be upset with him over the missed opportunity for sensational publicity.
Writing in The Australian this week, ABC Radio producer James Panichi was the only voice I heard questioning why Schettino was being thrown to the dogs before their dinner time.
How could the owners of the Costa Concordia have known so soon after the accident that Schettino was to blame? There had been no inquiry, no official review. Yet the company was in no doubt and the media lapped up its comments … The ship’s owners and operators had powerful friends. Schettino was thrown into jail, an apparent breach of Italian law…. The first major leak to the press came in the form of a taped conversation between Schettino and coast guard captain Gregorio Maria De Falco … But why would the coast guard leak the tape to the media now, before the body count has been finalised? Why wouldn’t it be used as part of an inquiry or during the court case?
Surely these are questions worth answering.
The world’s worst aviation disaster occurred when a KLM jumbo crashed into a Pan Am plane on a foggy runway in Tenerife. The arrogant actions of the KLM captain, who took off without clearance and ignored the meek protestations of his first officer, resulted in 583 deaths.
Investigations lead to revolutionary reforms in cockpit resource management, which have improved the power gradient in the cockpit. A first officer can now question the actions of a superior and step in if he or she deems it appropriate. This has since saved the lives of many passengers, but it wouldn’t have been possible if the aviation industry simply crucified the captain and moved on.
Innocent people died on the Costa Concordia. This is not a defence of the indefensible, it’s a suggestion there might be mitigating circumstances and that Schettino – guilty or innocent – could be the best chance of improving safety not only at Costa Cruises but cruise companies across the world.
It’s worthy of discussion in front of a judge and independent jurors, all perched in front of that big Italian sign suggesting the law is the same for everyone.
It sure beats trial by Twitter.
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