The anguish of the relatives of the missing Malaysian airline has been terrible to behold. But in sympathising with their grief and their tortured reluctance to accept the fate of the passengers until there is physical evidence, it is easy to overlook what a powerful case there is for their anger.
This has been a botched search from the beginning, and the relatives – cooped up in a Beijing hotel – have been misled and misinformed. Even the surprise pronouncement of the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, at the beginning of the week, that analysis of satellite information had shown definitively that the aircraft had crashed in the remotest part of the southern Indian Ocean, was made in a manner which made it only worse for the grieving relatives.
But then Abbott didn’t make the statement because he was anxious to bring a conclusion to the families. He did it because, ever since Australia was put in charge last week of the search in the southern air corridor, he was determined to maximise the public relations benefit.
Criticised throughout the region for the Australian government’s policy on immigrants, this would show Australia at its competent, humane best. When the first flights showed no sign of actual wreckage, Abbott saw it in his interests to confirm as soon as possible that he had been right at first to declare this was the probable site of the aircraft’s final descent.
That has been the problem of this search. From beginning to end it has been dominated by politics not practicalities, let alone compassion for the families, many of them particularly sensitive because of China’s one-child policy. Malaysian Airlines and Boeing both ducked quickly beneath the parapet and have stayed there ever since, letting the politicians take the heat and the blame, and happy to see the speculation turned towards hijacking and even suicide as the cause.
The Malaysian government, which rashly adopted the role of chief spokesperson as well as co-ordinator of search effort, changed the story every day. Having said that it might well have been an incident; it then declared with absolute certainty a week later that it had been the result of deliberate action by those on boards, fingering the quite possibly innocent pilots as the likely culprits. As evidence, it declared that one of the plane’s transponders had been switched off as the plane had left land, half an hour before the second system was turned off as the aircraft left Malaysia’s airspace, only to say, two days later, that this was not the case.
Worse, they dismissed an early statement by the Malaysian military that they had tracked a plane which had reversed course from the South China Sea to cross the Malaysian Peninsula back to the west. A day after this was revealed, the Malaysian minister declared firmly that the military had disowned its own first statement. Had that information been acted on even on a moderate scale it might have saved a week’s confusion.
It is easy enough to blame the Malaysian authorities for this but the role they took on was well beyond their experience and competence. When it came to the sharing of satellite and radar information from Malaysia’s neighbours, this was sadly lacking. Thailand simply declared that, as the incident did not involve a plane within its air space, it saw no reason to examine its records. Others, including China, are thought to have taken a similar view. The result was that the first imagery came not from any of the government satellites scouring the earth but a private British one, and then not until a full 10 days after the disappearance of the plane.
Inevitably, most of the questions posed about MH370’s disappearance have revolved around what happened on board. We may never know. But the questions surrounding the manner and delays in the search are, and should be, subject to inquiry. They need to be if, and probably when, another major air incident occurs in international air space.
Boeing has asked us to make clear that it is unable to comment on the fate of flight MH-370 due to international rules surrounding air incident investigations. 28 March 2014
But where’s the BBC’s original arts content?
It would be miserablist indeed to oppose Tony Hall’s announcement of a major drive by the BBC on arts. For too long the Corporation has treated the arts as a luxury to be covered in unrelated pockets across its channels. But then the grandiose is not necessarily the most creative. The roll call of the art establishment’s great and good joining the BBC’s new campaign is mightily impressive. But it is just that – a roll call of the establishment.
Television and radio work best when they are part of the creative act, not just recording it. It’s what the BBC did in the days of Tony Palmer’s documentaries on composers and its commissioned original drama. Filming the Globe’s The Duchess of Malfi and thinking up a modern version of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation series doesn’t do that. What we need is original programme-making. Half of modern art is made up of digital imagery and video films, after all.