Peter Popham: 'Nation of cowards tag returns to haunt Italy'

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As long as you didn't lose a loved one, the sinking of the Costa Concordia has been almost the perfect news story, providing a spectacle of gigantic folly while confirming our fondest prejudices: the Italian nutter who drove his liner like a Ferrari, phoned his mamma when it started to sink, then scarpered for safety, leaving passengers and crew scrambling around in the dark. How very Italian!

Francesco Schettino may indeed be guilty as charged: the transcripts of the conversations in which he apparently lied, hedged and begged don't seem to allow much leeway. Given the state of Italian justice, we should only have to wait about 25 years for a verdict. But in the meantime another Italian vice is on display: the rush to judgment. It happens every time a big story breaks in Italy. The weakness of sub judice laws and the fact that practically every telephone in the country appears to be tapped give journalists scoops that their colleagues elsewhere would kill for.

But given the complexity of real events, the truth is rarely this simple. Already Mr Schettino's unique blame is evolving into something more nuanced. Two other senior officers, one of them Greek, were in the boat that took him to shore; yesterday investigators confirmed that they, too, were in the frame. And then there are the conversations between Schettino and his boss at Costa, Roberto Ferrarini, the man in charge of emergencies, while the ship was sinking. Their content is as yet undisclosed. The speed with which the cruise company offloaded Schettino in the media is itself suspicious: was it to prevent the shadow of blame falling on someone more senior?

The idea that Italy is a nation of cowards was the creation of Allied media in 1940 after 36,000 British troops put some 200,000 Italians to flight. It has stuck ever since. But like the Costa Concordia disaster, the real story was far more complex: the weakness of the glue of national unity, corruption among the officer class and deep popular scepticism about entering the war, all played a part in military failure. And, contrary to the myth, many Italian units fought with great valour in both World Wars.

It is however probable that most of them were very fond of their mothers. And waved their arms around when they talked.

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