Books MH370 myths un­cov­ered

A quickie book on the dis­ap­pear­ance of Flight MH370 is its own dis­as­ter, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

COM­MON sense sug­gests that a book about Malaysian Air­lines Flight MH370 pro­duced so soon af­ter the plane’s dis­ap­pear­ance is un­likely to be any good. One fears, too, that any­thing less than a good book will be an ex­er­cise in bad taste. There are people for whom the mys­tery is also a tragedy, of a ter­ri­bly on­go­ing kind. Their dis­tress does not oblige writ­ers to fall silent, of course, but it com­mands re­spect. If you’re go­ing to write a book about this case, you’d bet­ter do a de­cent job.

Into this daunt­ing ter­rain the An­glo-Amer­i­can writer Nigel Cawthorne. I ad­mit I’d never heard of Cawthorne be­fore I took de­liv­ery of this book, but how bad could he be? The back cover says noth­ing about him ex­cept that he is “pro­lific” — a slightly omi­nous way of de­scrib­ing a writer. On the web, the signs be­come more omi­nous still. It turns out that Cawthorne’s oeu­vre, which is in­deed un­com­monly large, con­tains such ti­tles as

and An­tics of Old Eng­land Fa­mous Gays.



Amorous Lives of the

Still, one was ready to give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt. One stopped both­er­ing around the mid­dle of page three, where Cawthorne of­fers his sham­bolic first ac­count of the mo­ment when MH370 lost con­tact with the ground — the key mo­ment, that is to say, of the whole af­fair. We know that the flight made its fi­nal ra­dio trans­mis­sion to Malaysian air traf­fic con­trol at 1.19am. Cawthorne gets that part right. From there, things get a bit gar­bled:

“Around a minute later, the transpon­der that iden­ti­fies the air­craft to air traf­fic con­trol via ground radar was switched off. It was last seen on radar at 1.30am (17.30 GMT) 140 miles (225km) north­east of Kota Bharu, at the north­ern tip of Malaysia, around the point where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thai­land. Then MH370 lost con­tact with Subang air traf­fic con­trol one minute be­fore it en­tered airspace con­trolled by Viet­nam.”

We’d all be pro­lific, if we let our­selves write para­graphs like that. The alert reader will won­der, for starters, how the plane showed up on air-traf­fic radar at 1.30 if the transpon­der ceased func­tion­ing at 1.20. Is 1.30 a mis­print for 1.20? Or is Cawthorne sud­denly talk­ing about a dif­fer­ent kind of radar? If he is, it would have been nice of him to say so, if not manda­tory. “Then MH370 lost con­tact with Subang air traf­fic con­trol …” Does “then” mean af­ter 1.30? Yes, if the word is un­der­stood in its time-hon­oured sense. But Cawthorne has al­ready in­di­cated that the plane “lost con­tact” at ei­ther 1.19 or 1.20, depend­ing on how one in­ter­prets that typ­i­cally im­pre­cise phrase. Or are we sup­posed to con­clude that Subang air traf­fic con­trol, which Cawthorne hasn’t pre­vi­ously men­tioned, is some­how a dif­fer­ent en­tity from Malaysian air traf­fic con­trol?

The facts of this case are baf­fling enough by them­selves. We don’t need sloppy prose adding to the con­fu­sion. Cawthorne writes so poorly that it is sim­ply be­yond his pow­ers to con­struct a co­her­ent ac­count of the 10 min­utes that make the case so in­trigu­ing. The truth, which has been care­fully es­tab­lished by more scrupu­lous minds than his, is that the plane was last tracked by air-traf­fic radar at 1.21am, at which point the transpon­der was, by def­i­ni­tion, still work­ing. Then, al­most at the very mo­ment the plane en­tered Viet­namese airspace, the transpon­der stopped func­tion­ing. To say that it was “switched off”, as Cawthorne re­peat­edly does, is to as­sume too much. Con­ceiv­ably it was knocked out by a fire or mal­func­tion. But cer­tainly the tim­ing raises the sus­pi­cion that some­body on board dis­abled it for sin­is­ter rea­sons. About 10 min­utes later the plane made a sharp left turn, close to a U-turn, and flew back over Malaysia. We know this be­cause mil­i­tary radars tracked its course over the next sev­eral hours.

Cawthorne de­clines to give you all this in­for­ma­tion in one place. Re­mark­ably, he is still straight­en­ing out the ba­sics al­most 100 pages later. “It seems that, af­ter [its] last trans­mis­sion, the plane had veered off to the west,” he re­veals


on page 93, on the off chance any­one is still read­ing. At such mo­ments you could be for­given for think­ing his book has no struc­ture at all. In fact it has one, but it’s the most hare­brained struc­ture imag­in­able for this kind of book. Roughly speak­ing, Cawthorne winds the clock back to day one and retells the story from the be­gin­ning, pro­vid­ing you with only the in­for­ma­tion avail­able at the time, even when that in­for­ma­tion has since proved to be wrong. Be­cause it took a while for the world to learn the plane turned around, Cawthorne takes a while to con­firm it. He seems to have drafted his book in real time, as events un­folded, with­out both­er­ing to go back and cor­rect the early stuff in light of later de­vel­op­ments. No doubt this made the book easy to write, but it makes it hor­ri­ble to read. Thus Cawthorne re­ports, on page three, that the flight’s fi­nal ra­dio trans­mis­sion to Malaysia con­sisted of the words “All right, good night”. We then hear about all the “spec­u­la­tion” that this “some­what ca­sual” sign-off sparked. Not un­til page 206 does Cawthorne get around to men­tion­ing what the world has known for a good while now: no­body ever ut­tered that phrase in the first place. “Cu­ri­ously, it was now re­vealed that who­ever on Flight MH370 signed off that night, they did not use the ca­sual ‘All right, good night’ that had at first aroused sus­pi­cion, but the more for­mal ‘Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero’.”

Cawthorne is the Agatha Christie of non­fic­tion. He likes a good red her­ring. Be­fore he’s cleared up that one, he throws out this one: “Adding to the mys­tery came news that the pi­lot’s sign-off, ‘All right, good night’, came af­ter the au­to­matic trans­mis­sion equip­ment had been dis­abled.” This trou­bling news was in­deed de­liv­ered by the Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter on March 15, but, like a lot of an­nounce­ments made in those early days, it turned out to be in­cor­rect. You’d think Cawthorne, if he’s go­ing to re­gur­gi­tate such mis­in­for­ma­tion, would have the cour­tesy to tell you straight away it’s un­true. But he doesn’t seem to think that’s his job.

Over the past three months, the world’s bet­ter jour­nal­ists have painstak­ingly sharp­ened our un­der­stand­ing of the MH370 story. In May,

did an ex­em­plary job of craft­ing the es­tab­lished facts into a clear nar­ra­tive. On Wikipedia, the col­lec­tive mind main­tains a thor­ough and on­go­ing sum­mary of the sit­u­a­tion as it stands, com­plete with foot­notes. Cawthorne un­does ev­ery­body’s good work by re­triev­ing ev­ery ob­so­lete and dis­cred­ited non­fact from the trash, slap­ping the whole lot be­tween cov­ers, and let­ting you puzzle out the truth for yourself. You might as well go out to your garage, dig out the past three months’ worth of news­pa­pers, and re-read all the MH370 sto­ries in chrono­log­i­cal or­der.

At least the news­pa­per sto­ries were largely to the point. Cawthorne end­lessly di­gresses about any his­tor­i­cal plane dis­as­ter that bears a pass­ing re­sem­blance, if that, to the case of MH370. No doubt much of this in­for­ma­tion would seem per­ti­nent, if de­liv­ered by a bet­ter writer. But Cawthorne has a pas­sion for use­less de­tail. He has an ex­cru­ci­at­ing habit of pro­vid­ing dis­tance data in both miles and kilo­me­tres, and some­times in nau­ti­cal miles as well, at mo­ments when even one mea­sure­ment would seem su­per­flu­ous.

At that point,” he writes about a plane whose fate may or may not have pre­fig­ured that of MH370, “the air­craft’s ground speed was 107 knots (124mph or 198km/h), and it was de­scend­ing at 10,912ft (3326m) per minute …” The lay reader does not re­quire this many nu­mer­als — and who is this book for, if not for the lay reader? What we need is a writer who will digest the tech­ni­cal stuff on our be­half, then give us a lu­cid pic­ture of what’s go­ing on at any given mo­ment.

In­stead Cawthorne clogs his pages with a blizzard of ir­rel­e­vant in­te­gers. He quotes all mon­e­tary val­ues in both pounds and US dol­lars. He gives you Green­wich Mean Time as well as lo­cal time. When a quoted source makes men­tion of a mo­bile phone, Cawthorne hand­ily in­forms you, in brack­ets, that this is the same thing as a cell­phone. He writes like a des­per­ate stu­dent who will throw in any de­tail or anec­dote to flesh out the word-length of an es­say. Any man who can call the MH370 mys­tery an “en­dur­ing” one doesn’t care about what he says — he is just us­ing words to fill up space.

In the in­for­ma­tion age, only a small por­tion of the in­for­ma­tion we’re strafed with turns out to be ac­cu­rate. On the 24-hour news chan­nels we get the uned­i­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of the news in its half-formed state, as if we’re back­stage at a sausage fac­tory. It be­comes hard to get a proper grip on what’s hap­pened, be­cause we’re too busy be­ing told what’s hap­pen­ing now, right this minute. In the US, CNN’s in­ces­sant and fevered cov­er­age of the MH370 mys­tery be­came no­to­ri­ous for its fa­tu­ity. It reached its nadir when one an­chor won­dered aloud, on air, why no­body had se­ri­ously con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity that the “su­per­nat­u­ral power of God” was re­spon­si­ble for the whole thing.

Cawthorne doesn’t throw that scrap of tripe into his in­for­ma­tion gumbo, but he throws in just about ev­ery­thing else. What’s the point of writ­ing a book if you’re go­ing to re­pro­duce the slap­dash at­mos­phere of the worst kind of 24hour news show? Ah, but the point of a book like this is to be out there, to have an eye-catch­ing cover and be present in the stores. Next time you’re in one, buy any book other than this. I guar­an­tee it won’t be worse.

A flight ar­rivals board at Bei­jing Cap­i­tal In­ter­na­tional Air­port in­di­cates Flight MH370 is ‘de­layed’ on March 8

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