Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Mystery of MH370 must be solved, for all our sakes

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University students hold a candlelight vigil for passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Photo / AP
University students hold a candlelight vigil for passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Photo / AP

The riddle of MH370, which vanished unexplained 13 days ago shortly after departing Kuala Lumpur airport, looked at last to be approaching some kind of resolution last night, with the discovery on satellite imagery of possible debris, including one piece estimated to be 24m long, in the southern Indian Ocean.

For all the official warnings that it may not be related to the missing Boeing 777, at the time of writing the scale of the Australian-led rescue operation, which included a New Zealand Air Force Orion, suggested a high level of confidence they were looking at the breakthrough clue in the fortnight-long mystery.

That fortnight has served up a slew of headlines ending in question marks. Was the plane flown at dangerously low altitude to "terrain mask" and avoid radar? Did the Malaysia Airlines 777 cockpit become overwhelmed by fire, flying on autopilot until running out of fuel? Was the pilot a dangerous political fanatic? Did it land in Taleban territory? In the Andaman Islands? Had it swapped squawk codes with another aircraft? Did it hide in the shadow of another commercial jet to avoid detection?

The long-standing adage goes that any headline of that type can be answered, straightforwardly, "No". Before long we may be able to retrospectively answer many of them as such, but over the past two weeks the answer has, for the most part, been something like: probably not, but no one really knows.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does rolling news. With every passing day, the drip-feed of information, the red herrings, the twists and contradictions delivered by the sometimes flat-footed Malaysian authorities only fed conjecture. Morning after morning, the radio bulletins began with the words, "The mystery deepens". The fascination was deep, too. At the BBC news website, for example, 17 of the 20 most read stories last week related to the disappearance of the Boeing jet.

Media critic Michael Wolff divined in the coverage "the new anti-journalism - all data, no real facts, endless theories". A harsh assessment, perhaps, given there has been a lot of very strong reporting in strange circumstances, not to mention a struggling crisis management operation in Kuala Lumpur. But there is no doubt that inventive speculations bloom in such conditions. They might be wild on old-fashioned talkback radio, wilder still in the pumped-up crowd-sleuthing of online forums like Reddit, but mainstream news platforms have not exactly been immune.

And yet, what a lot to chew on: how could a huge passenger plane have vanished like that? In a world of omniscient superpowers obsessed with national security, how could it leave nothing but a handful of ambiguous pings? It was hard to avoid the conclusion that nation-states were slow to share information because they were unwilling to give away clues about the extent of military surveillance.

While the Wall Street Journal has been the outstanding source of sane news and analysis, the man who controls the media empire of which it forms a part, Rupert Murdoch, at the same time proved the allure of dreaming up scenarios to fit preconceptions, and couldn't help but tweet his own unfettered hunches. "World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden," he pronounced. And, earlier: "777 crash confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China".

Conflicting reports and a shortage of verifiable information are gifts for ambitious imaginations. Conspiracy theory adores a vacuum.

Along the way, those of us who have grown transfixed have become fleeting self-educated bores on subjects including aircraft tracking systems, central Asian geography, Malaysian domestic politics, the depth of the Indian Ocean, even the Thai black market in stolen passports.

For all that comparisons with fictional television series have grown hackneyed, the live broadcasts of media conferences - 10.30pm nightly New Zealand time - became a kind of appointment viewing, the unfolding drama irresistible. The impish Malaysian defence minister, the stiff police chief, the airline boss. The cameo appearance by the Prime Minister. In his absence, Captain Zaharie Shah was interrogated and very probably defamed, conjured up as hero and villain.

On Wednesday, however, there was something very sobering about the interruption of the news conference routine by Chinese families of MH370 passengers. Their efforts to voice frustration saw them dragged forcibly away by Malaysian police. It was a jolt, a necessary reminder that for relatives and friends of the lost 239, others' macabre fascinations could only compound anxiety and misery.

The gravity of the story goes beyond their heartache, of course; establishing what happened to the plane, whether by accident, ineptitude or foul play, is of huge importance to the manufacturer, the aviation industry and, in turn, to travellers.

Should the "new and credible information" that Tony Abbott revealed in the Australian Parliament yesterday amount to the awaited breakthrough, attention will turn to the evidence left, most crucially the black box recorder.

Whatever it might tell us about the mystery and the required review of communications, safety equipment or security provisions, just as critical is addressing the geopolitical sticking points that hampered and delayed the exchange of information between states for far too many days after MH370 fell off the map.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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