Commercial aviation is the safest form of travel because the industry has learnt from past accidents by abolishing the culture of blame.

Who's to blame? Well, it's complicated and should be determined by a court of law in line with existing protocol. Picture: AP

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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12 comments

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    • Erick says:

      04:43am | 31/01/12

      There is a difference between opinion and law. The fact that many people have already formed an opinion does not deny the possibility that a formal inquiry will find otherwise.

      We’ve had trial by media ever since there were media. Before that was trial by gossip. Trial by Twitter is no different, except for being faster, more democratic, and better informed.

    • marley says:

      06:34am | 31/01/12

      While I agree that the coverage of the press does impede the right to a fair trial, I think the author is conflating two separate issues:  what or who actually caused the accident, and whether the captain failed to do his duty after the accident.  From what I’ve seen in the press, the first is very much open to debate, even in the Italian media.  There is plenty of blame being thrown the company’s way,as well as the captain’s.  But I don’t see how anyone but the captain can be blamed for his failure to stay aboard and manage the evacuation, as was his duty under maritime law.

    • Mahhrat says:

      06:37am | 31/01/12

      @Chris, your points are very good, but the tone of this article again makes me raise the question:

      When we talk about things like “Trial by Media”, why are you talking like you’re not part of the media?

    • nossy says:

      08:37am | 31/01/12

      How on earth are they going to refloat this sucker - anyone know?

    • Erick says:

      09:13am | 31/01/12

      Give the captain a bucket and tell him to start bailing.

    • Trevor says:

      09:27am | 31/01/12

      Put Tony Abbott in a scuba suit and put in the submerged captains cabin- Hot air and physics will do the rest.

    • Gregg says:

      10:04am | 31/01/12

      They have huge infatable bags Nossy.
      From an engineering point of view, after the fuel is pumped out and that’s no mean task in itself it’ll be something like:
      . A detailed examination of just how bad is the hull ripped up and the international marine salvage companies employ naval architects and engineers and they will need to determine just what the forces will be on the structure and whether refloating is feasible given how and what she is lying on.

      In simpleton form, we’ve had the recent example of another she not even being beached and yet how she was carried along in the tide created some difficulties, she certainly appearing to have something of a list, her bottom barely escaping a good scraping and still losing one of her propellors.
      There’s been a lot of clamouring to hang the guilty in this situation too.

      Given the Concordia is given a better chance of survival,
      . If it is, I expect that there’ll have to be quite a bit of re-inforcement and containment work done to keep the inflatable bladders in place and sealing the hole without the inflatable bladders themselves being ruptured.
      . Another angle may be putting the bladders outside the hull but I expect that will create a whole other set of problems re keeping them in the right place etc. and you would still have the problem of sealing the hole and pumping the water out.
      . Whichever way it could be done, sealing is not going to be 100 percent effective just as with political matters and so a system of pumps with capacity to be pumping out far more than inflow would need to be established and perhaps you’ll need to have Acotrel man up but then a lot of hot air is pretty useless unless we could of course bag it.

      . If it is to be attempted, do not expect any guarantees of success and politics is a bit like that too ain’t it, especially with all these promises re new taxes and infrastructure not needed nor being taken up by too many.
      I’m more than happy at the moment in having ditched the satellite service and having a Wifi device providing a quicker service at about a third of the cost, so who needs NBN.

      Now plan B, or C to somewhere near Z for the Concordia could well be when we get to I and that’s not for investigation but I for India, it could be that a few thousand or tens of thousands of those guys over in India that haul ships up on to the beach might have to be packed into one of the ships heading their way before the beaching and have it turned about not by courtesy of Captain Abbott btw and those tens of thousands might just have the job of cutting her up into little bits.

      You’d no doubt hate to think of the other she befalling such a fate but there could well be some knives being sharpened by Shorteny William Capone.

      One way or another, I doubt the good Captain Schilletto is going to be thinking too much on the cost, whereas some insurance companies could be very closely examing their fine print.

    • nossy says:

      11:14am | 31/01/12

      @Gregg   excellent Gregg - yes sad if she is cut up - have seen those places over in India where ships are gutted and cut up.

    • Gregg says:

      12:29pm | 31/01/12

      Thankyou Nossy, and yes a carving would be a bit short sighted for there are so many other good uses that the vessel could be put to as it is with any slippage arrested and some stability for future use,
      . scientific lab for erosion and protection studies.
      . cliff face climbing
      . terrorist response training
      . tourism with levelled walkways and floors to cabins to allow habitation and for the cheap skates you could just hang hammocks.
      . pylons of that massive Denmark to Sweden bridge are just loved by fish stocks and so quite possibly the hull will be similar and especially in being open, a great divers experience so more tourism
      . film production
      Probably many more possibilities but all perpetual income and employment generating compared to salvage costs.

      Sadly, I imagine the chances of something like that are as about as good as less sad event of the HMAS Julia being resurrected and have you ever walked with one slipper replacing a lost shoe?, not so good is it!

    • dancan says:

      11:05am | 31/01/12

      “innocent until proven guilty – appears to have abandoned ship in this case.”

      It didn’t abandon ship, it triped on a railing, fell into a life raft, stayed in the life raft till it was safe, then when instructed to return to the court room to ensure justice was being served, refused and instead proceeded to make excuses for an hour about how justice actually was being served although it wasn’t there.

    • Utopia Boy says:

      06:11pm | 31/01/12

      ...mmm…the Italian government is corrupt. If it were anymore corrupt they would have to start importing extra suitcases for officials (including the judiciary) to carry all the “black” money.
      Anyone with any kind of common sense can see the captain is “a goner.” He has no chance of a fair trial. In a country where everyone has a voice, and demands their right to be heard, where politicians comment on trivial non issues regularly and where porn stars get elected to parliament without having ever declaring a policy, he simply has no chance. I guarantee politicians and the media will pronounce their beliefs and that is the way the decision will fall.
      In this formerly great country known as Italy, life has degenerated into tabloid as news, celebrity is more important than quality, and life is all about celebrating it’s former glory as a great empire and seat of religious power.

    • Julian Deverell says:

      04:38pm | 09/05/12

      The internet is quick to jump to conclusions because of the rapid speed on which information flows and opinions are formed. Social media speeds up this process because simple pictures and websites are easily shared, and before the full picture is known, people will come to their own conclusions based on those articles. Without a doubt, social media is useful for making social causes known, but the truth is often muddled in the process of sharing.

 

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