We hear a lot nowadays about the “blame culture” - the increasing tendency of those with a supposed grievance to seek satisfaction in legal judgements and financial compensation. It is a worrying trend that must inevitably lead to less firm decision making by managers and others in authority.

Another, even more worrying, trend is towards a “no blame culture” which, surprisingly, has surfaced where it can do most harm - in the armed services of Britain and the United States.

At the beginning of this month Commander Robert Sanguinetti was cleared to resume his Royal Navy career after being severely reprimanded by a Portsmouth court martial for running the frigate HMS Grafton on to a submerged rock in a Norwegian fjord in 1998 where it was stuck for 24 hours during a NATO exercise.

It was said in his defence that he suffered a “lapse of attention” at the bridge and that he had “considerable potential”. Last week a US Navy court of inquiry into the collision between an American submarine and a Japanese vessel off Honolulu decided that the submarine's captain, Commander Scott Waddle, should not be tried by a court martial.

When demonstrating emergency surfacing procedures to civilians on board, the submarine rammed and sank the Ehime Maru, nine of whose passengers were killed. It is expected that Commander Waddle will be reprimanded.

What kind of a message do decisions of this kind send out? The armed services depend absolutely on competence and reliability among its officers.
If officers in command of their vessels can no longer be held accountable this principle is at risk.

Ral Fleming

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