It’s a good job wreckage has been found off the coast of Australia, because if the search for missing flight MH370 goes on much longer the world won’t actually have any journalists left. Malaysia has acted like a kind of media black hole, sucking more and more of the world’s journalists away from their home countries and into its gaping maw. Our screens fill more and more with shots of wailing families, repeated footage of bemused politicians and, well, not very much else.
This is the biggest breaking story of the year so far, and in some ways it’s easy to see why. Since the plane went missing almost two weeks ago on a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing there has been the perfect combination of lack of hard fact and availability of rumour to drive 24 hour media into a frenzy. There have been false leads, different potential villains (the first officer! A shadowy passenger! The pilot! The co-pilot!), confusion as to when the plane’s communications system were disabled (and, lest we forget, the moment we discovered “deliberate action” had been taken with them, whatever that is). Did the plane turn back? If so where did it turn to? All of the intrigue is extremely addictive, especially when coupled with the human angle. Outraged families of those on board are stranded, desperate for information, willing to vent their rage to any nearby camera.
It’s the ultimate Now Economy story. The huge amount of coverage coupled with the lack of hard fact has left an information gap which can only be filled by one thing; Twitter speculation. Everyone has their pet theory about the flight’s fate, and some of these theorists are celebrities with big followings. Courtney Love, oddly, has been one of the more active participants, tweeting annotated pictures to explain her musings. I give it three days until Malaysia Airlines officially changes the name of the flight to #MH370.
Far be it from me to suggest broadcasters are being led by their audiences, but it does seem as though more credence is given to unproven conspiracy theories than it might once have been. A memorable episode of BBC Breakfast last Saturday discussed the possibility of the Malaysian government being involved in secret hostage negotiations. The conclusion? If they were, we wouldn’t know and to the outside world everything would exactly like an ordinary salvage operation. Coincidence? It must be! Such speculation seems calculated to fuel Twitter discussion. Sky News, meanwhile, seem determined to turn the affair into an Air Force One-esque mid-90’s aviation thriller. Earlier this week they interrupted The Simpsons to bring us an MH370 special which consisted mostly of pulsing synth and CGI shots of planes turning in mid-air.
Is this news? Well, yes. As CNN anchor Jake Tapper eloquently pointed out: “this story… combines a potential tragedy involving 239 missing persons – three of them American – with discussions of and reporting about the state of modern aviation, counterterrorism, Boeing, the U.S. Navy, geo-politics and international relations.”
But the way the story has been reported says much about the state of modern media. Swamping the ongoing Crimea crisis both in its airtime and in its budget (sorry to harp on about it, but I’ve seen enough CGI planes turning in midair to last a lifetime), the issue is that this has been chosen as most networks’ lead breaking story solely because of its ability to provoke discussion. I’m all for engaging the crowd and sparking debate, but only to a purpose. This is turning into an X-Factor-style exercise in mass media distraction, and I think we should expect more from news broadcasters than that.
Satellite picture released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority of the object thought to be related to the search for MH370