Instant communication fuels ghoulish speculation

01 May 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

OUR world is so very different from even a few years ago but many of the changes have been insidious in their effect to the extent that the current status quo seems to take many of us by surprise.

Who would have thought, even five years ago, that an official recognition of the loss of Malaysian Airline flight MH370 with all its passengers and crew would be communicated to hundreds of waiting relatives by text?

On the face of it, the careless medium of instant communication is hardly a respectful or appropriate method of breaking tragic news – or is it? How else would the airline company be able to communicate instantly with hundreds of people in many countries?

Can one imagine that any other method of communication could suitably inform so many people without the risk that a percentage of them would find out, before receipt of an official communication from the company, by postings on Facebook or Twitter? Can you imagine anything worse than that?

The problems with instant communication are manifold; because it is instant, there is no time to massage or edit the message to make it more acceptable or respectful and, therefore, it is inherently impersonal.

Breathless recognition

Of course, one can understand the outrage expressed by some families on receiving such a text but perhaps that outrage had been fuelled by what appeared to be a media gavotte between breathless recognition of the fact that no data seemed to exist to help track the missing airliner and the rash of conspiracy theories that were inevitably drawn into the vacuum of absolute ignorance that plagued the first few days, and subsequently weeks, after the plane disappeared.

Theories varied between terrorism, hijack, human error, sabotage and wilful suicide.

Was I alone in finding the press speculation that an experienced captain with more than 18,000 flying hours under his belt might wilfully curtail all communication and fly 239 innocent souls into the Indian Ocean, to be mawkish and irresponsible? Media speculation about the mental balance of the crew would have been frankly libellous had they been alive but was somehow acceptable if they were presumed dead – an amazing development and hardly the world press’s finest moment.

How ready were we, the ghoulish speculators on the other end of such information to jettison all our trust and confidence, with which we regularly imbue the role of airline captain and senior crew members, to even countenance the theory that an individual who was fully approved by one of the world’s better airlines might, without any forewarning, seek to murder hundreds of people he didn’t know in one of the most terrifying methods imaginable?

“That’s newspapers for you,” I hear you say and then I realised that that’s another of those insidious changes – who buys a newspaper any more? I might buy one to seek more information about a story but my first port of call to find out about the news is a news-feed on my phone or on my laptop; physically manhandling a newspaper is now something I rarely do except when I’m down the pub or in a hotel over breakfast.

Fallen into the trap

When did that happen? I don’t really know: it just did happen but, in accepting it, I now have fallen into the Wikipedia trap of believing a single digital source of incoming data and appear to accept what BBC News tells me without the age-old angst of needing to decipher the news by stripping out the political allegiance of the newspaper in question.

Now I find myself simply accepting the political overtones of the BBC because I want the convenience of instant news awareness and that’s what I get on my phone. Over the years, I have known two people who have been involved with the BBC and, to be honest, I don’t think we share much common political ground but that doesn’t stop my blind acceptance of what appears in simple text on my screen.

So is that any different from Malaysian Airlines breaking tragic news by text–and is it any more or less acceptable than a wartime telegram?

A different language

Another problem with instant news supply is that no one has time to consider either the timbre of the news itself or the likely effect it may have on the recipient. When the Malaysian text was received, it was not only impersonal but, for so many of the recipients, it wasn’t even in a language which they could understand.

So, after weeks of mistrust and suspicion surrounding what many have seen as incompetence on the part of the Malaysian authorities, was this the final insult for the families of the 154 Chinese passengers on the plane? By the time the text arrived, the Chinese relatives were distrustful of all authorities – Malaysian and Chinese – but one can imagine, in a world of instant news delivery, that all the authorities were between a rock and a hard place. 

On the one side, the need for more data will have involved data held by military personnel in a handful of countries, few of which have much trust in the goodwill of the others. On the other hand, such a tragedy is thankfully very rare indeed so there will have been few people within Malaysia who had appropriate and instantly accessible experience of how to deal with such an event.

We can all realise that an early decision made in error but in good faith could lose literally days of searching opportunity. However, previous experience with the ill-fated Air France 447 showed that handling things differently made a huge difference where families felt that they had received information more accurately and more quickly.

For those who know more than I, live streaming of Black Box-type information would appear to be a simple answer but is not yet an adopted universal standard for commercial aircraft.

The irony is that the faint pings which Inmarsat used to pinpoint what was most likely the terminal flight path came from the engine management systems which are used to transmit commercially useful data on engine performance for the benefit of the manufacturer and the operator.

To adopt a system that would make more accurate triangulation child’s play, in the absence of the ACARS system, would apparently cost as little as $1 per hour but, unbelievably, this has never been a requirement despite the inquest into and subsequent findings about the loss of Air France flight 447 in 2009. Most of us would have been happier not knowing that fact but it’s another “benefit” of instant news supply.

We live in a society which, on one hand, seeks to apportion blame but, on the other, accepts that the admission of liability is in the gift of the insurance underwriters and very little is actually as it appears. Whatever the possible, eventual culpability and the recriminations which may follow, the most important need now (as this is being written) is to find exactly where the plane has ended up and, if at all possible, retrieve the Black Box recorder to find out exactly what happened.

Ironically, in our new world where news is instant, the longer it takes to do that, the more likely it is that this story will completely disappear from our consciousness until those data are produced.