As I write the hunt for any sign of the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 is still proceeding unsuccessfully.
These events bring out the worst in the media, and I find another reason to avoid watching tv news bulletins. The shameful sight of a paparazzi gang at the airport surrounding frightened and frantic relatives of passengers is enough to turn my stomach, and again make me wonder at the morality of the media. Also interviews of relatives on tv programs, questions designed to elicit grief and tears which alert cameramen are ready to close focus on. And nonsense about “fate” and “miracles” and prayers, and stories of people who almost caught the plane but didn’t or did catch the plane when they shouldn’t have.
Then there is the procession of rumours and rumours of rumours about wreckage and oil slicks and sightings and turnings around and fake passports and passengers not boarding and on and on. Speculations by “experts” who have no more idea what happened than you or I but who are happy to blather on at length. Right down to the abysmal Rupert Murdoch who tweeted, within a short time of the disappearance “777 crash confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China”.
“Disaster porn” this stuff is called. Been going on a long time, probably since the beginning of human speech – “Oo, er, you hear about Big Nose and his family being trampled by the mammoth/eaten by the lion/falling off the cliff?” – and on through history “Hey, what about Pompeii eh?”, “Phwoar those Vikings at it again up the coast”, “Whole village dead of the Black Death I hear” and so on.
Got really going with the increasing size and use of passenger ships. Nothing like boys standing on burning decks, “Wreckers” waving false lights, ghost ships with dinners still on mess tables, unsinkable ships meeting icebergs, torpedoes striking in the night, and so on. And then air disasters adding another dimension of horror as airships catch fire and planes disappear in Bermuda triangles or crash into the Andes where passengers eat each other without sauce.
The attraction is obvious – the combination of “imagine the horror” with “oh thank goodness it wasn’t me”. The delicious shiver down the spine, the genuine sympathy for the victims, the anger about failures of maintenance or skill, perhaps, whisper who dares, just a little schadenfreude. So in the on-going argument about whether tabloid journalists are merely responding to public demand, or creating a demand, I think you’d have to agree that they are, to some extent at least, merely responding to a demand that has existed since the flickering shadows in a cave added to the horror of a neighbour attacked by a pack of wolves.
But it seems to me the tone has changed. From the time, some 40 years ago, when various groups discovered you could cash in politically on those natural human fears by hijacking planes followed by blowing them up, the dimension of “terrorism” has added another level of nastiness to the coverage of airline disasters. Now as well as worrying about a wing falling off or a pilot falling asleep, passengers had to look anxiously at the others in the check-in or their neighbours in the next seat. And the media, like Mr Murdoch, will use every disaster to whip up more fear about the terror that is potentially lurking in every baggage hold or overhead locker. As will populist right wing politicians.
As well as the added dimension of fear of the other though the tone has been changed because of the tabloid race to the bottom to get more eyeballs on screens by creating more and more scenes of carnage and fear and grief. Down, down, to the bottom of the gutter. As planes go down, ratings go up.
Which in turn, seems to me, makes airlines even more attractive targets for terrorism, because the horror for the bang becomes ever greater. As planes go down political impact goes up. As in so many areas, the media form a spinning black hole sucking in all kinds of social issues and destroying them down down past an event horizon, spitting out heat but no light.
Look, I know you expect answers from Watermelon, but I don’t really have any here. Other, I suppose, than a vain hope that the occasional journalist might think “if that was my mother grieving my brother lost in a plane crash would I really want microphones and cameras shoved in her face?” And the occasional editor might think “Hmm, best not to speculate on the cause of this crash until there is actually some firm information”. But not likely as long as demented tycoons are spurring them on demanding ever higher ratings.
So as planes continue to go down, down goes our society.