Flight MH370 Malaysian officials struggle with credibility after changing last words heard from lost aircraft

Chris Brummitt and Gillian Wong, Associated Press | April 1, 2014 10:19 AM ET
National Post

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — It may mean little to investigators that the last words air traffic controllers heard from the lost jetliner were “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” rather than “All right, good night.” But to Malaysian officials whose credibility has been questioned almost from the beginning, it means a great deal.

Malaysian officials said more than two weeks ago that “All right, good night,” were the last words, and that the co-pilot uttered them. They changed the account late Monday and said they are still investigating who it was that spoke. The discrepancy added to the confusion and frustration families of the missing already felt more than three weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared.

“This sort of mistake hits at the heart of trust in their communications. If Malaysia is changing what the pilot said, people start thinking, ‘What are they going to change next?” said Hamish McLean, an expert in risk and crisis communication at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

“Information is in a crisis is absolutely critical. When we are dealing with such a small amount of information its needs to be handled very carefully,” he said.

Authorities have been forced on the defensive by the criticism, the most forceful of which has come from a group of Chinese relatives who accuse them of lying about — or even involvement in — the plane’s disappearance. In part responding to domestic political criticism, defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein has taken to retweeting supportive comments on Twitter. He has twice in recent days proclaimed that “history would judge us well” over the handling of the crisis.

The government’s opponents disagree. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the correction set off a “medley of shame, sadness and anger” and strengthened the case for creating an opposition-led parliamentary committee to investigate the government’s performance in the search.

The communications skills of any government or airline would have been severely tested by the search for the Boeing 777-200 and its 239 passengers and crew. So far not a scrap of debris has been found.

“There has been very little to tell and a lot of unanswered questions,” said Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. “There is frustration on the lack of new information, frustration over progress with investigations and the search. That frustration is being channeled to the Malaysian authorities but I think it’s a bit premature to use that to reflect adversely on how they are doing.”

Still, the government’s handling of information has at times fed perceptions that it was holding back. From the first day of the search, crews were looking far to the west of the plane’s last point of contact with air-traffic controllers, but it took about a week for officials to explain that radar had detected the plane in the area.

“There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can’t,” Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said cryptically in the early days of the search.

“That was a terrible, terrible response,” said Lyall Mercer, the principal of Australian-based Mercer PR, a public relations company. “It says to the families that ’we know things that we are not going to share’ and that ‘something else is more important than you’.”

The piece of information that families most want to hear — whether their relatives are alive or dead — has remained impossible to say with finality, creating a dilemma for the government.

On March 24, it tried to address that. Malaysian Airlines officials met families in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and sent a text message to others saying “we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.”

At a news conference half an hour later, Prime Minister Najib Razak was less direct. He said with “deep sadness and regret” that the plane’s last known position was “a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” and that the flight “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean.

Sarah Bacj, a 48-year-old American expatriate teacher whose boyfriend, Philip Wood, was on the flight, said the decision by Malaysian Airlines to inject some certainty into the fate of the passengers was a mistake. Until then, she said she thought the Malaysian government had acted responsibly, but the text message “totally violated my trust.”

“I fell off the cliff,” Bacj said. “The way the text message came, I expected proof. That they had found the bodies, or that they had found confirmed wreckage, or something … but they didn’t actually tell us anything at all. The only thing they did was make a judgment statement about evidence — unconfirmed evidence, mind you.”

The final words from the cockpit, and who said them, are of interest not only because there are few other clues to the disappearance, but because the communication occurred just a minute before the plane’s transponders were shut off.

On March 16, government and airline officials said the final words were “All right, good night” and initial investigations showed they were spoken by the co-pilot. As of Tuesday they had not explained how they got it wrong.

PR experts and professionals said the important thing now was to try and give the families as much information as possible, before the media gets hold of it, and to keep paying attention to them even when the media gaze had drifted.

On Tuesday, the Malaysian government announced that technical experts from Malaysia, China and Australia would brief the families in a closed-door session in Kuala Lumpur.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 1 April 2014 - 11:45 pm

    /// the last words air traffic controllers heard from the lost jetliner were “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” rather than “All right, good night.” ///

    Shouldn’t there be a rule that in any investigation, only authorized person(s) can speak to the press?

  2. #2 by pulama on Tuesday, 1 April 2014 - 11:54 pm

    Just a few words. But it took a few weeks to correctly transcribe and report them. Some may begin to have doubts about the accuracy of other data and analysis.

  3. #3 by pulama on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 12:09 am

    /// “There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can’t,” Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said cryptically in the early days of the search. ///

    The passenger list = yes, can tell you.
    The crew members = yes, can tell you.
    The cargo manifest = no, cannot tell.

  4. #4 by Cinapek on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 1:23 am

    ‘What are they going to change next?”

    The words spoken may not by itself mean much but the implication of the change is huge. How can something so simple could be wrongly divulged? Just as the DG of the civil aviation claims that the two fake passport holders were of African descent, and which later turned out to be Iranians, were a supreme embarrassment. This is made worse when he had claimed during a press conference that he had viewed the video himself! Now add this fiasco of the last words spoken. I recalled the press asking and reconfirming the last words during one of the press conference and now this change which took more than a week to correct.

    No one trust the Malaysian authorities anymore.

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 4:48 am

    From “The Hunt for Red October” to “The Hunt for Black March

    308 turns out 2 b a LANDmark date in dis 1DERful land’s history – MH370 n GE12

    MH370 has made Malaysia FAMOUS or INFAMOUS throughout d world

    Google “MH370 Malaysia” will give “About 927,000,000 results (0.31 seconds)” at dis instance
    Google “MH370 马来西亚” will give “About 714,000,000 results (0.15 seconds)” at dis instance
    [Not sure if our Perkosa-UmnoB/BN ministers KNOW how super FAST we can search databases n obtain >500,000,000 hits]
    Huge publicity 4 dis 1DERful land in a short period of less than a month, much more than what curi-curi Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board could achieve 4 many months at great expenses in promoting ‘Visit Malaysia Year 2014’

    Furthermore, there will certainly b DOCUMENTARIES on d missing MH370 2 b screened on d Discovery n National Geographic Channels later, again n again, ensuring Malaysia 2 b well known in PERPETUITY throughout d world

    Interestingly, MH370 has alerted d world abt
    “Malaysia’s authoritarian government
    “Malaysia’s long-ruling government, which muzzles its pliant mainstream press”
    “The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, in power since independence in 1957, has a poor record of transparency, routinely sweeping corruption scandals and other [email protected]$sments under the rug”
    “their reporters say they are routinely [email protected]$sed or blocked from government press briefings”
    AFP, April 1, 2014 – April’s Fool Day jokes?

    All right, Good night

  6. #6 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 4:53 am

    All right, wrt #3 above, All right, Good morning rather than All right, Good night
    Credibility questioned? Hope not …….

  7. #7 by Aristotle on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 6:18 am

    When you have an education system that limits the ability to think , this is what you will get. People who don’t understand bearing, geography, science but nevertheless are up there to serve their masters. Just how the hell they got their doctorate PhD masters or watever cert. The entire system is rotten to the core. Straight A’s in spm so what. More worrying, what’s the point in attaining one if all you get is just another parrot

  8. #8 by winstony on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 7:55 am

    MH370 is reminiscent of this country.
    Everything is unaccounted for!!!
    It’s way, way past time for Malaysians to change those at the helm.
    Otherwise, this country will be lost in the void.

  9. #9 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 11:38 am

    boh-liao :
    From “The Hunt for Red October” to “The Hunt for Black March

    Talking about Red October, shouldn’t the US nuclear submarines have all those sophisticated towed sonars that are able to detect relatively silent submarines. Would be easier to detect the black box of MH370.

    Malaysia has managed to turn crisis management into a management crisis.

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