For weeks, we’ve clutched whatever the modern equivalent of a handkerchief is to our collective bosom, waiting for news on missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The sudden and inexplicable disappearance of the commercial airliner seemed shocking in a world where everything is meticulously tracked. Things no longer simply disappear. Wild theories, idle speculation and conspiratorial whisperings on the fate of the flight soon gave way to the most important question of all:
Hey, how’d we make out?
Someone will eventually figure out what happened, and the fact that nobody has clear sovereignty in this situation – the plane likely went down in international waters – means that it’s all up for grabs.
There’s probably not going to be a happy ending to this, and so the closest thing any country can hope for is to be the first to find the wreckage. Do not underestimate the power that will come with this. Implicit in finding the wreckage is technological and deductive superiority. This is what the arms race now looks like.
Naturally, each country wanted to focus on how much they’d been doing. China Daily was quick to report on the important work of the Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft. NBC News told us of the USA-provided black box detector vital the search. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments that the families of the passengers would most likely want to await news in Australia.
Abbott commented, in not terribly diplomatic terms, that the families “will be in the arms of a decent country” in response to reports that they were clamouring to get to Perth to be physically nearer the search. This could well be the basis for Perth’s most convincing tourism campaign since that statistical anomaly proving that not everyone who visits necessarily gets eaten by a shark.
Due to the increasing likelihood that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Perth, all eyes have turned to Australia, and Australia has not disappointed. This past weekend (nearly a month after the plane disappeared), Prime Minister Abbott announced former defence force chief Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston as the coordinator of the operation. Houston’s responsibilities will include keeping the national and international media up to date in all facets of the search effort. This must be one of those times where providing a shipping news service is politically advantageous.
Meanwhile, China has breathlessly reported that its afore-mentioned military plane, the Ilyushin IL-76, had spotted floating objects the colours of white, red and orange. This information was relayed immediately, inevitably giving way to the news that the objects were, in fact, nothing to do with the missing plane.
(Conspiracy theory fans will note the only country whose flag is white, red and orange is Bhutan. As China has an historical border dispute with Bhutan, maybe this “find” is simply a bit of clumsy foreshadowing.)
The story of the Chinese-found objects was not the first or the last false alarm, and was hardly productive even if the intention is to cross debris off the list. If we’re going to sit and list everything that isn’t a piece of MH370, then we’re going to be here an awfully long time. On the other hand, if this exercise in red herrings does nothing else, it will at least demonstrate to everybody just how much man-made junk is clogging up our oceans instead of, say, actual red herrings.
The growing insanity from 24-hour news organisations desperate to fill air time has been well-documented. Pundits have speculated about the possibilities of a black hole opening up in the fabric of space-time; others have spoken directly to psychics for a supernatural scoop; newsreaders have wondered if God Herself raptured it into a different plane of existence (emphasis and laboured pun both mine); reporters have, for reasons known only to themselves, asked if there’s a connection to the TV series Lost. (Actually, that last one might not be as crazy as it sounds. Lost, about a missing commercial aircraft, was executive produced by JJ Abrams, whose reluctance to let any information about his projects leak to the press is now the stuff of legend. If Abrams is executive producing MH370, then the lack of information suddenly makes sense.) Oh, and news.com.au decided to talk about how handsome searcher and Flight Lieutenant Russell Adams is, which will be of great comfort to the grieving families.
But in amongst this free association-posing-as-news is a small nugget of insight. For every Courtney Love—who thought she’d found the plane by examining GoogleMaps, a plan only marginally less stupid than searching for the thing with a magnifying glass and an atlas printed in 1987—there is a Rupert Murdoch.
The local angle, a favourite topic of ours, reveals the unconscious bias in more ways than one. Murdoch, who consistently fails to employ anyone with backbone enough to tell him to for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy stop tweeting, posited the following on March 15:
“World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in Northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.”
With any luck, flight MH370 is hiding out in an Abbottabad compound, watching satellite television and biding its time. What form of mammalian seal team finds it first will determine whether Rupert is a savvy media operator, or a man whose fear of terrorist threats colours everything he sees.
Speaking of Abbottabad, as our Prime Minister takes a somewhat erratic approach to the plight of foreigners off the Australian coast, he dutifully announced to a world desperate for closure that recent satellite images could be showing wreckage of the crashed flight. Some may criticise him for the fact that this statement was made a week-and-a-half ago, but others will recognise that it is of utmost national importance that Australia be at the forefront of this announcement. Surely somebody must have George W Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner lying around.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah