Guest Post: “60 Minutes: How to create your own facts before the real ones are at hand”

by Mark D Young

[Reprinted with permission from Mr Young’s website, Flightlevel42]

This past weekend saw the Australian public shown a television programme from the well known 60 minutes team. The programme has been getting a lot of attention, as most episodes do. Similar to the Carte Blanche segment on South African pay-tv station M-Net, 60 minutes has had some stellar moments of true investigative journalism during its run. However, like Carte Blanche, the manner in which many programmes are put together is formulaic.

A script is devised and then a pre-determined set of outcomes is established prior to interviews being conducted. The selection of participants and the editing of footage is carefully undertaken to steer the selected narrative in the direction chosen by the production executives. I have seen enough of both programmes to spot where and how they are edited, how shot selection is strategic and selective staging is used to ensure the script worked out by the production team achieves its goal.

A valid retort to anyone taking issue with the broadcasts of either programme is that “Well, we’ve merely presented some facts and opinions. We have got people talking. If anything changes, we will do a follow up.”

From a purely legal point of view, they are–of course–correct. As they would need to be. One cannot keep your programme running if it upsets too many courts. However, the odd bit of legal controversy–actual or threatened–never hurts the ratings. That’s show business.

This past Sunday’s programme–from “The Situation Room”–supposedly investigating and revealing new information on the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, is a great case study, in my view, of how to go about doing what the team at 60 minutes does so well.

Get folk who apparently have complete expertise in the field being discussed into an impressively titled studio set to give their opinions. If you choose the music and selectively edit well enough, you can create a wrapper of atmosphere and supposed investigation effective enough to permit a public lynching to take place in such a subtle way that a non-thinking viewer, devoid of all the salient facts involved (in what is a very complex matter), can comfortably accept that the 60 minutes team had got to the heart of the matter and presented an irrefutable hypothesis. Viewers can then go away into the world apparently ‘fully informed’ when they are nowhere near such a state.

Articles about the programme are trumpeting the fact that “aviation experts” have changed their views on what happened to MH370 and the “mystery” about what happened has now been resolved.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Great expense was involved in giving one guest the lion’s share of the programme running time to ostensibly present two options (in a Boeing 777 simulator) of the end of flight situation. Both, however, were based on the same core premise for why the airliner was where it was at that stage of its flight. This was not investigation – it was a bludgeoning of a reputation using a personal opinion presented as fact.

Two other guests involved in the show put forward a similar view. Combined, they were given the majority of the airtime.

Counterbalancing these three was only one person who was actually at the sharp end of the official investigation. The edits made have effectively sidelined his attempts at presenting his views or asking for the factual basis of some of the claims made. His approach was, in fact, the only one grounded in the science of flight safety and not wild, headline grabbing speculation.

The second person not pushing the pre-determined premise was an oceanographer who has, in the flow of things, made an entirely incorrect prediction of where the airliner lays. He was edited down to – roughly – a total of 90 seconds of speaking time during the entire exercise.

Balanced?

Hardly.

What of the lynching? Well, that was of the Captain of flight MH370. He was, of course, not present to defend himself. Nor were any of his colleagues questioned on their views of the pre-determined theory. No input was presented from the Malaysian authorities who had actually performed background checks on the pilot and his life-story.

Instead, the script used the few–extremely rare–incidents of malpractice by flight deck crews (and one of those is still highly disputed due to the possibility of misunderstanding of the culture of the pilot by foreign investigators) to try and corral the MH370 loss into the same pen.

A countervailing view can just as easily be that the very fact that they had to scrape the barrel to find – in the event – only one irrefutably proven case of pilot suicide/mass murder in the jet-liner era demonstrates just how rare that prospect is.

It hardly forms–from an aviation safety perspective – the basis of an explanation for this loss. It does not provide, in the remotest manner, a means of conclusively ruling out a sequence of events that provide an alternative explanation to the loss of the aircraft.

And looking at “coincidences” and “what the numbers tell us” is equally flawed as an investigative technique upon which to base conclusions that could affect all future journeys.

Assuming that the statistical safety of a design precludes a cause other than wilful action (or inaction) by the captain as postulated by “experts” prior to the full investigation’s findings, has already proven to be a flawed foundation for the explanation of another Boeing 777 crash.

I, therefore, do not believe that the “statistical safety” of the Boeing 777 airliner can form the foundation upon which to dismiss any possibility of a rare, as yet unknown, combination of mechanical and other factors, which could explain the loss and prevent a recurrence of it with another aircraft.

BA flight 038 is the case in point. A Boeing 777 airliner – statistically the safest aircraft ever built and without an accident prior to the event – generated a set of circumstances which had, and have never, taken place before or since in the history of jet airline transportation. This set of one in 100 million (or more?) factors caused, however, the airliner to drop out of the sky on short final approach.

In that case the wreckage was readily at hand.

No one was killed.

Yet, when the investigators could find no fault in the mechanical systems, “experts”–many within the technical division of the airline rightfully proud of their maintenance–postulated the only explanation for the crash, given the “statistics of the aircraft type” and the lack of other evidence of mechanical causes, was that the captain had “frozen at the controls”.

In that case, even without fatalities having taken place, the investigators eschewed the “experts” views and set about a two year long search for the cause.

In the end, it was found that a particular set of circumstances, unique to that flight, airframe and route used on the day, had caused some freezing, not of the captain’s responses, but of the fuel supply.

Had it not been for the instincts of the captain to survive and to save his passengers, there would have been fatalities. The Captain there proved that airline commanders are humans. They want, in my experience, to survive and do their best to ensure the safety of the passengers in their care.

I cannot but wonder how the same panel of experts on last week’s 60 minutes programme would have set about blaming that captain were they to have been asked to do the same type of programme in regard to flight BA038 prior to the official findings of the painstaking investigation having been released?

And so I place on record my disappointment with the programme and its premise. I am also less than impressed with the manner in which the only true expert on this particular tragedy, Mr Dolan of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, was so obviously hung out to dry and sidelined when he asked valid questions of those postulating their theory.

In effect the panel was 4-2 against with the presenter asking only those questions that steered the discussion further along the pre-determined lines.

Mr. Dolan tried to take the sober view I would expect of a professional investigator. The only facts on hand are that the airliner was, at various intervals, at “some point” along arcs of distance from a satellite. Some wreckage has washed up indicating the airliner is most likely–based on drift analysis of oceanic data gathering bouys–somewhere in the southern Indian ocean. Other than that, there is no undisputed data on the flight as even the radar plots used as a given, undisputed piece of evidence in the “situation room” are of a questionable veracity and are only, officially, “presumed to be” of the missing airliner.

Notwithstanding all the noise around the matter, and his current lack of official involvement, Mr Dolan would still like the wreckage found and he is not prepared, like every official investigator I have encountered in my 30 year involvement in reporting on flight safety, to make any findings in regard to the causes of the loss until it is located and examined.

And I concur with his approach–for it is only once it is found and the available data on the recorders is analysed, or the wreckage examined, that any proper investigation can be undertaken and probable causes established. He also made the point that there has already been learning from the loss–steps have been taken to ensure airliners will soon be tracked every inch of their journey and that a sole crew member cannot take control of an airliner.

While those steps–of themselves—do not support the predetermined, hurtful and highly speculative premise of the programme that “the pilot did it,” it actually highlights how the industry learns from everything and takes steps to mitigate against similar losses in future.

As things stand, and this was mysteriously left out of the programme, the various search areas that were originally determined by various experts, as well as the revised areas and the one determined by the oceanographer who appeared on the programme, have been exhausted without a trace of the aircraft. So, at present, only the places where drift analysis indicates the airliner crashed remain unsearched. Through a long, costly process of elimination, it is now–more than ever– known that the aircraft is not lying on the ocean floor below 28 degrees south on the last communication arc.

What is needed is that the search for the aircraft must be continued in the remaining, most logical areas–based on the physical evidence in the matter–until it is found. There cannot be a number placed on the safety of passengers on other flights.

As pertinent, in my view however, is that–as was said by a relative of one of the passengers in the 60 minutes programme– there cannot be a number put on the peace of mind of the relatives either. “They must look until they find it.” she said. And that, I feel, must be the focus of all efforts in regard to MH370.

I, for one, am not comfortable to fly long haul flights knowing that there is an, as yet, unexplained set of circumstances that led to the loss of an airliner full of people. And “the pilot did it deliberately” is not a comforting or reasoned answer. It is a lazy, ill-advised and insulting cop-out without–as yet–any concrete evidence to support it. Until the recorders are found, any programmes or news articles claiming to have “the real” answers will be nothing more than speculation. Speculation did not get air transport safety to where it is today. We should not let it start to play a role in the future of aviation safety now.

And, rather than spending money on speculative sessions in costly flight simulators, perhaps TV stations should rather band together and fund the final search needed to provide material for a real ratings hit and help to bring closure to the relatives?