Nick Varney's sincerity over 'Smiler' crash means Merlin can now move on

Judge Michael Chambers QC was damning in his judgement of Merlin Entertainments yesterday (27 September), saying the Smiler crash last June was a "catastrophic failure...a needless and avoidable accident", resulting from safety protocols which fell "far short of required standards".

'Smiler' accident victims (left-right) Vicky Balch , Joe Pugh, and Leah Washington outside Stafford Crown Court (pic credit:Chris Radburn/PA Wire)
'Smiler' accident victims (left-right) Vicky Balch , Joe Pugh, and Leah Washington outside Stafford Crown Court (pic credit:Chris Radburn/PA Wire)
The incident ultimately sent sixteen young people to hospital and left two teenagers needing leg amputations.

Although its initial claim that the incident was as a result of human error didn’t turn out to be entirely true; the company has maintained this humble, human approach, respectfully fronted by CEO Nick Varney, and, in terms of their reputation, it has served them well.

Of course a certain amount of media attention was unavoidable, but Merlin, having accepted blame early on, and having co-operated with investigations in a transparent fashion, turned a potentially seismic media storm into one that may end up being contained in a teacup.  

Even unashamed career journalist Kay Burley’s juvenile attempts to be a bit like Jeremy Paxman didn’t blow Varney off course.

The now infamous interview didn’t make for comfortable viewing, but it was Burley, not Varney making a million buttocks clench.

Emily Dent, director at Rampart
The now infamous interview didn’t make for comfortable viewing, but it was Burley, not Varney making a million buttocks clench.   
Despite the attempted mauling, Varney didn’t deviate from his key messages, nor get drawn into a tit-for-tat dispute with Kay. 

In fact, at the time, many believed that Varney’s calm interview style went some way towards salvaging Merlin’s reputation. 

Indeed, in the aftermath, a petition to sack Kay Burley topped 50,000 signatures. Nobody has yet called for Varney to go.

That said, Tuesday’s ruling could have a lasting negative impact on the theme park’s reputation, unless concerted efforts to improve the safety of the rides is made. 

Furthermore, the public need to be made aware of such efforts, or else Alton Towers may suffer a significant, ongoing drop in visitors. 

What is clear is that Merlin fully expected such a hefty fine. 

Its statement to the press after Tuesday’s verdict was, once again, human, humble and sincere. 

Varney said outside court that the "greater punishment" was knowing that the company let people down, with devastating consequences.

He also pledged that the incident would never be forgotten or repeated. Even Kay Burley would find it hard to argue with such a heartfelt statement.  

The company can do no more. They will now try to draw a £5m line under the incident and move on. 

However, with such a drastic, devastating incident still fresh in people’s minds, Merlin is not out of the woods just yet.

Emily Dent is a director at Rampart

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