Drinks will have to wait – covering flight MH17

1st MH17 tweet
My first tweet on MH17

Yes, I was quick off the mark recognizing the impact of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, look at the time stamp. All the more surprising that I totally, but I mean really utterly and completely, failed to see this as an opportunity for work or as something that I personally needed to engage with professionally. I was busy doing other things.

That evening, I had arranged to meet a friend, a fellow journalist, for a drink and I was rather looking forward to it. When I called him in the early evening he was distracted and rather breathless, “I’m leaving for Kiev right now. Drinks will have to wait,” he said. Still, I did not catch on.

“I’m leaving for Kiev right now. Drinks will have to wait,”

Instead of focusing on flight MH17, I arranged to go see some stand-up comedy with another friend, also a journalist but less on the news side. Shortly after, I actually received a phone call from a radio freelance service, asking me if I was available for interviews on the crash of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam, I declined, saying that I had really not read up on it and that I had a previous engagement (watching stand-up comedy, that is). But the request did finally get me to start the long-buried but still dormant routine of gearing up for a major news event. When the Washington Post approached me, via a friend and colleague, first by email and then by phone, I was almost ready. I still sputtered some objections, “I might be a bit rusty, I haven’t done this for a while.” The need in DC was clearly high, and the answer was an unperturbed, “I’m sure you’ll do fine”.

MH17 next of kin shielded by Dutch polcie
Dutch police at Schiphol Airport shielding family members of the victims of flight MH17 hours after it crashed

Having been pressed back into service as a hard news journalist by the Washington Post shortly after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 went down on Thursday 17 July, I creaked into action. It’s always a jagged balance between supplying the desk immediately with a file on whatever you have available at that moment, calling around to gather more information, and getting to where it all happens, which in this case was Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where flight MH17 had left from earlier that day. Cancelling the evening’s planned entertainment and getting the first two items done, with my journalism saps slowly chugging into motion, took a little while but it’s like riding a bike; muscle memory takes over and so does the pain in the butt the first time you get into the saddle again.

At Schiphol Airport, the telltale signs of a gathering media storm were already present, with satellite trucks parked outside the departures hall where the passengers for flight MH17 had just hours earlier checked in at the Malaysia Airlines desk. On TV I had seen journalists interviewing those about to board the evening flight. “It’s terrible what happened but I don’t have a problem taking the next flight,” was the typically sober Dutch response. Families of those aboard MH17 had been trickling in for a couple of hours, having been told to gather at the airport’s “Dakota bar”. Dakota, as in the old DC-3 military and commercial aviation workhorse, but the name may be a bit ill-chosen: As recently as 1996, 32 Dutch people died when a Dakota crashed in the north of the country.

The Dakota bar was closed to journalists and the next of kin were kept well away from the media. In fact, shortly after I arrived at the airport, the stricken relatives of those on board flight MH17 were shepherded into two buses outside the departures hall under armed police escort. Officers and airport security personnel set up a protective perimeter around the families and the buses, aimed specifically at keeping the press at bay. This remained the main focus over the next couple of days; Malaysia Airlines with the cooperation of the Dutch authorities sought to limit access to the next of kin and as a result, intended or not, monopolized the messaging around them.

The airline put them up in a hotel near the airport and flew in care-givers from Malaysia, even though not all of the Dutch family members displayed a thorough command of English. It kept emphasizing that it was doing everything to help the next of kin, and be that as it may, it was in fact relatively powerless in the face of the developing military and  geo-strategic situation at the crash site and in Eastern Ukraine, as was evidenced by its early continual emphasis on bringing the families to the crash site and then later having to abandon that idea. Nobody discussed the airline’s obvious interest in controlling the messaging from the family members – it greatly helped contain yet another PR-debacle – and the attitude of the Dutch authorities gave it all the room it needed.

The protective attitude of the Dutch authorities seemed to go beyond the appropriate measures to ensure regard of privacy in such situations. Of course, people who have suffered an appalling loss will have to be treated with respect and sensitivity but I wonder what the legalities are in ordering police protection against journalists, rather than against any likely security threat. At no point were the media given a chance to approach any from among the families who stayed at the hotel, had they volunteered to make themselves available. Such control over the messaging, again intended or not, did give the government a freer hand in shaping the message in the first few days, without anguished family members en masse turning to the media to up the pressure over the delay in access to the crash site and the return of the remains. Given what has transpired since, with investigators still not able to carry out their work at the site, we may well ask whether grieving and angry family members being more visible in the media, could have made a difference.

Listen to Malaysia Airlines VP Huib Gorter emphasize that the next of kin are “our main priority” at press conference announcing crash of MH17: 

And here he talks about the care-givers and flying the families to Kiev:

So, from the very beginning, the knowledge of what was happening on the ground in Eastern Ukraine was patchy and expectations about what could be achieved on the spot were unrealistic. I believe that this did not only affect the airline but also the Dutch government and possibly other governments as well.

One other remark that stood out at the chaotic press conference where journalists jostled for space and shouted to get a question in, concerned Malaysia Airlines choosing to fly over that part of Ukraine. It came up immediately, among the very first issues the media focused on. Mr Gorter said that Eastern Ukraine had not been earmarked a war zone in air traffic terms: “Had it been, then we would not have been able to fly over it.” This, and by extension how airlines cope with a multitude of conflicts of different intensities around the globe, has of course become a focus now, in the aftermath of the crash.

After filing a story on the press conference from Schiphol, my next priority was finding out where the airline had taken the next of kin, so I took a taxi to do do the rounds of the nearby hotels. Fortunately, I found them at the first address I looked, The Steigenberger Airport Hotel, just off the airport proper, on the edge of the Amsterdamse Bos, the city’s largest park. The police and ambulance outside were a dead giveaway. A small group of mostly Asian journalists was milling outside but nobody prevented me from entering the hotel and walking all the way to a conference room where the next of kin were gathering for a briefing. There I was stopped, though, and when I asked to speak to a spokesperson for the airline, the hotel manager himself escorted me from the premises with a curt, “you’ll have to go”.

Outside, several Dutch local care-givers or emergency services personnel were standing around, wearing reflective jackets. When I asked them if they had a spokesperson, to brief me on what was happening with the next of kin, they were even more hostile and one frostily told me, “you better leave”. I had to think back to that attitude, especially from care-givers, as the next of kin whom I talked to later on, where mostly happy to talk to the press and share their stories, it were the professional people around them who seemed hostile.

In the meantime, after I got home at what was by then 2 pm local time, another aspect of the crash had gained media attention: the presence on board of MH17of what was initially assumed to be a large number of participants in the AIDS conference in Melbourne. Almost immediately, particularly the names of those delegates started circulating on social media. That was another of the contradictions between on the one hand many people trying to observe an entirely justified restraint vis-à-vis revealing the names of victims and towards the next of kin, and what was happening on social media and in some newspapers on the other.

Retweets in the night from Thursday on Friday mentioning the AIDS campaigners who died on flight MH17
Retweets in the night from Thursday on Friday mentioning the AIDS campaigners who died on flight MH17

Very early on Friday morning, twitter was abuzz with the loss of so many AIDS campaigners and researchers, particularly from the Netherlands. The director of STOP AIDS NOW, Louise van Deth, received shocked messages from colleagues and others. I contacted her and she briefly answered some questions. This is one of the more general comments she made and I can see no harm in reproducing it here at this time:

It is a heavy blow that people who have been so active for so long in the fight against AIDS have been wiped out. Joep especially, is a dramatic loss for all kinds of research. He was a driving force behind the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development.”

That was the end of day one, well the early morning of day two. More will follow on what else happened, including the less than smooth sailing for the Dutch government, even though there was a massive closing of the ranks…



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Journalist, writer, podcaster

2 thoughts on “Drinks will have to wait – covering flight MH17

  1. […] If this jeremiad is unseemly in the light of a disaster such as MH17, then at least I’m doing it in the appropriate place, on a blog, the forum par excellence for unseemly expression. And if anybody has wondered (I doubt it) why I have not posted for almost a year, I’ll simply say this: I found out that I really hate writing for free, in a vacuum, and for no apparent reason other than self-publicizing. I’ll make exceptions, such as in this instance, when I think I actually have something to say. I’ll follow up this post over the next week or so with an account of how it went down… […]

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