There has been no shortage of coverage of the tragic accident at VLN1 over the weekend that saw the death of a spectator after Jann Mardenborough’s Nissan blew over at Flugplatz.
We’re not going to get into analysis of the accident here. We aren’t experts in any relevant field, we don’t have nearly enough of the facts and, well frankly it simply isn’t appropriate at this point.
We’ll simply add to our condolences to the bereaved family, and our very best wishes to Jann who found himself in a situation that no driver expects.
Aside from the specifics though there are lessons to learn here for the sport, and they run parallel to the day job that kept the wolf from the DSC Editor’s door for some 30 years.
In that time I was part of an effort to deal with the aftermath of a very large number of major incidents from air crashes to bombings, from Lockerbie to 7/7 and a lot in between.
It taught me a lot about what is achievable, what is morally acceptable, and what is justifiable – and a lot about how far people will go to gain viewers and readers in even the most disastrous of circumstances. It taught me too that some tactics in response work, and others don’t.
One major factor at play is the reality of the immediacy of social media.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when those responsible for responding to a major incident had time to gather facts, come up with an agreed series of statements and generally be the most informed people in any given situation.
That time has gone.
Within minutes of the incident I, at the time in the press room at Paul Ricard for the FIA WEC Prologue, was being bombarded on Twitter with images of the accident site as colleagues in Germany tried to make sense of a developing situation.
Those images made it clear that we were looking at a very serious incident indeed and before an hour had passed there was video circulating too, social media, and immediately in its wake the more traditional media began its now predictable feeding frenzy of sensationalism and thinly veiled justification of clickbaiting ghoulishness.
In the wake of all that those responsible for handling both the accident site, and the media pack assembled for the race, did as good a job as can be imagined.
I’m delighted to say that both DSC’s man on the spot Soeren Herweg and our ex European Editor Marcel ten Caat responded magnificently, keeping me appraised of the background chatter but sticking to our firmly established professional standards.
It’s worth saying here for a moment that the aftermath of a fatal incident is a very tough time to be a reporter. The fact that it happens remarkably infrequently nowadays means too that the skills required here are not often exercised.
As an aside the very first time it happened to me in the sport was Le Mans in 2013. Think about that for a moment – I am 50 years old, have been around race tracks for much of my adult life, have attended hundreds and hundreds of events as a reporter and it had never happened while I was there – Until we lost Allan.
Around the islands of common sense though the media machine started to churn. Outlets that seldom, if ever, showed interest in the sport were suddenly focused on a corner in the middle of a German forest.
As someone who loves my sport I’ll say this as clearly as I can. That sickens me. The mock familiarity with the sport and the people in it, the assumption of a position of authority in the story, and, inevitably, the beginnings of the most disgustingly predictable process of them all – The Blame Game.
The parallel tragedy of the Germanwings air disaster is a case in point, leaked documents and tapes paint a picture, possibly an accurate one, but almost certainly not the full story, fuelled by the insatiable appetite (and deep pockets) of the mass media.
In the absence of the full facts there is clearly currency in joining the dots. Whether it is those in search of Twitter followers, or those in search of ratings or sales this is very much more than a minority pursuit.
But there’s something that can and should be done about this. It requires bravery on the part of those involved in the sport and a sea change in behaviours and attitudes, but in a 21st century media environment the answer is clear.
Serious accident reports in the sport should be published in full.
For so many reasons:
It establishes trust in the investigative process;
It gives those involved an end result to place reliance upon;
It gives an eventual series of examinations and answers that unpick a fiercely complex situation; and
It helps others to learn those lessons too.
Because it is the right thing to do.
In the UK and in very many other countries of the world we publish such reports for all accidents at sea, in the air and on the railways. Countless lessons have been learned not just here but across the world from the mistakes and misfortunes that befell generations of aviators, mariners, railway staff and their passengers.
The process is meticulous, legally based and binding, and non-assumptive.
No it doesn’t prevent the barrack room lawyers and the Twitter conspiracy theorists, but in time it gives them less room for their own assumed credibility as the reputation of the sport and its processes takes precedence.
It can be done, and indeed it was in the case of Jules Bianchi’s awful incident just last year.
Contrast that clear conclusion with the unholy mess that was made in the wake of Fernando Alonso’s pre-season testing incident.
It needs to happen across the board, with a clear trigger point for the process, to re-establish authority in these cases and to show an openness to change where and when it is required.
And it gives those involved a clear course, it establishes factors and fault, and recommends solutions.
It might feel like a leap into the unknown, but as a sport what would we prefer – the feeding frenzy and the Blame Game, or an opportunity to display responsibility for fixing our own problems?