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OPINION: Why is there's still no justice for Radiohead drum technician Scott Johnson?

Laura  Barnes
OPINION: Why is there's still no justice for Radiohead drum technician Scott Johnson?

In his latest MI Pro column, professional guitar technician Adi Vines warns that without pressure from the concert industry, the circumstances of the Radiohead stage collapse in 2012, which killed drum technician Scott Johnson, may never come to light…

On the afternoon of 16th June 2012 in Toronto, Canada, an outdoor stage intended to host a performance by Radiohead collapsed, killing the band’s drum technician Scott Johnson and injuring three others. A subsequent investigation resulted in charges being brought against the concert promotors Live Nation, the staging contractors Optex and an individual staging engineer.

After a lengthy judicial process that has seen many delays, a mistrial verdict and an attempt by the accused parties to have the case dismissed, the simple passage of time would seem to have succeeded where the defence team have failed as, in September 2017, a Canadian court judge ruled that the case exceeded the new eighteen month limit set by the Canadian Supreme Court and ‘stayed’ the charges (which is local legal parlance for throwing out the case).

As news of this decision spread, Scott Johnson’s father called it “totally disgusting… heartbreaking… and just not fair” while Radiohead themselves issued a steely and tight lipped statement calling the judgement “an insult”. Meanwhile, in tour buses and production offices around the world, most personal opinions have been noticeably more venomous. But, although some of this outrage has spilled out onto social media, across the concert industry there seems to be very little in the way of an official response from anyone.
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A mistake was made. Let us do the right thing and find out how we can learn from that mistake and make this a safer industry.

Jon Burton, veteran sound engineer

An exception is Andy Lenthall, general manager of the UK’s Production Services Association, who felt strongly enough about the situation to comment that “The feelings of frustration and anger are echoed throughout the production fraternity, with more being shared in private than in public, perhaps due to the grip that Live Nation have on touring and festivals and the fact that people need to earn a living. We feel deeply saddened for Scott’s family and close friends".

Elsewhere, veteran UK sound engineer Jon Burton made some salient points when he remarked that "Without the full story of the Radiohead stage incident being investigated we will not learn from any mistakes and the practices that allowed this situation to occur will not change. I do not believe in accidents. Something in the situation that left a colleague dead was wrong. Whatever that was needs to be investigated. I feel strongly that for these charges to be thrown out, for whatever reason, sends a very poor message to the rest of the industry. The music business is the same as any other business; it has responsibilities for its workers. I think those that are seemingly trying to avoid these proceedings should be ashamed. A mistake was made. Let us do the right thing and find out how we can learn from that mistake and make this a safer industry."

Notwithstanding the fact that the Ontario Ministry of Labour did conduct an investigation and obviously found evidence strong enough to warrant initiating a prosecution, Jon Burton is correct- without a full examination of the facts in open court and any legal consequences brought to bear, no-one is going to be able to move on from this incident. Scott Johnson is still dead, others present on that day remain traumatised, suspicion and resentment will still be held toward the organisers of the event, no improvements to safety precautions or procedures will be identified and implemented and the opportunity to clear people of blame as well as assign responsibility has been missed.

One of the most abhorrent aspects of this situation is the cold hearted way that the Canadian legal system has let down Scott Johnson and his family, friends and colleagues. Not once but twice. The original trial was abandoned after fourteen months of proceedings, although not for any reason relating to the evidence or the defence or prosecution cases, but due to the presiding judge receiving a promotion. Incredibly, and cruelly, an internal appointment within the court system had derailed the whole process and a mistrial was declared. Good news and congratulations all round for the lucky judge, it would seem, but tough luck and back to square one for everyone else. If that was not offensive enough, the eighteen month time limit (only introduced in 2016) was then applied retrospectively when the case went to retrial, even though the Canadian government's own investigation took a year before bringing charges and the abandonment of the previous trial was caused by the court's own actions. There can surely be no moral justification for this latest decision, it is based simply on a poor piece of legislation, applied to this complex case unfairly, and it reflects very poorly on the integrity of the Canadian legal system.

So, five years and three months after that terrible day, there is still no justice for Scott Johnson and very little respect for many of the parties and institutions connected with the case. The Canadian judicial system looks pathetic and ineffectual (and checking out the comment sections of various major Canadian newspaper websites confirms considerable fury at the fact that many other serious legal cases are falling through the eighteen month loophole). A system that imposes time limits on cases while tolerating spurious delays in its proceedings deserves no honour, because Scott's death and the circumstances surrounding it would seem to have been deemed as nothing more than a legal inconvenience.

Live Nation earn the enmity of a large part of the concert industry workforce, because for many observers it is hard to ignore the widespread allegation that they have played the system to a point where the case has timed out, in order to avoid some extremely serious charges. In its 2013 statement Live Nation describe Scott’s death as ‘unfortunate’. In the wider world 'unfortunate' means running out of milk in the morning or falling on the stairs and chipping a tooth. This man’s death is not unfortunate, it is tragic and horrific and some genuine remorse and an acknowledgement of the issues and concerns that the case raised would be appropriate under the circumstances.

It is a shame that the business isn’t prepared to stick up for an injustice done to one of its own.

Adi Vines, guitar technician

Finally, where is the protest from the live music industry itself?

The Event Safety Alliance was set up in reaction to a series of stage collapses in the US a few years ago, which specifically states in its publicity material that it wishes to introduce a system for live event structures based on the stringent UK Health & Safety guidelines. ESA's vice president, Steve Adelman issued this statement to MI Pro on the subject of the Toronto stage collapse: "The ESA agrees that the Canadian legal system failed Mr. Johnson's family in this instance, but we exist to improve safety practices at live events.”

But some of the institutions that claim to have a stake in the concert business and should therefore have pressing concerns are silent. Take, for example, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (or simply IATSE) one of the biggest union organisations representing stagehands and local crew members in the US and Canada have made no mention of the incident on any of their news pages or social media. It must be pointed out that no IATSE crew were working the Radiohead event but I would have expected them to have concerns about any unsafe practices within the industry as a whole. IATSE are not usually shy about expressing their views on issues which may affect their members, so the lack of comment on this occasion is puzzling.

The UK based BECTU union has also not replied to my request for comment, neither have the editors of two notable trade magazines dedicated to the live event industry. I have also contacted a number of large UK audio hire companies, none of whom are prepared to talk about the issue on the record while a few colleagues in senior production roles have spoken out but have asked not to be named- which is not a great deal of practical use, grateful though I am that they have responded.

Without pressure from within the concert industry, the circumstances of the Radiohead stage collapse may never come to light and it is a shame that the business isn’t prepared to stick up for an injustice done to one of its own. There are reportedly grounds for appeal in relation to last month's court decision but whether that is a course of action that is being followed is unknown at the time of writing this article. In the meantime, people like myself, who tour the US and Canada often and walk onto stages in the assumption that safety is a priority and that all procedures in relation to it have been followed are left wondering if that is, in fact, the case and how disposable our lives really are.

FOOTNOTE – In the interests of balance, I contacted Live Nation in the USA to obtain copies of their full statements from 2013 and 2017 and to request further comment about the incident. At the time of deadline for this article, I have received no response.

Main image via The Guardian

Tags: radiohead , live nation , Opinion , Adi Vines , Scott Johnson

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