MEDIA WATCH

Assumptions about an air crash

George Bain July 22 1985
MEDIA WATCH

Assumptions about an air crash

George Bain July 22 1985

Assumptions about an air crash

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

In 52 weeks preceding the week of June 24, stock in a firm called Scintrex, primarily known as a maker of geophysical and geochemical equipment for mineral exploration, traded between $7 and $9.88. On June 24, Scintrex closed on the Toronto Stock Exchange at $9. On July 2, just five trading days later, Scintrex closed at $13.50, up 75 cents on the day and up a cool 50 per cent in five days. “Industry observers,” reported The Globe and Mail, “attributed the stock’s performance to favorable publicity surrounding the company’s new bomb detection device.”

In the circumstances, “favorable publicity” had a distinctly macabre ring. The Sunday before Scintrex took off —June 23—was the day Air-India Flight 182, bound from Toronto, via Montreal, for a first overseas stop in London, crashed without warning of distress off the Irish coast. It was the same day that baggage unloaded from a CP Air flight, which may have included baggage for transfer to another AirIndia flight, exploded at New Tokyo International Airport. Two baggage handlers were killed there; all 329 passengers and crew died in the AirIndia crash.

Immediate coverage of those events in all the media—television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the works—played heavily on four assumptions: the AirIndia flight crashed because of an explosion; the explosion was caused by a bomb planted by terrorists; the terrorists were Sikhs; and the Air-India and CP Air occurrences were related. A sudden rush of questions about the adequacy of airport security followed. Stories on a new wave of international terrorism bloomed everywhere. Almost no time was wasted on the basic premise of sabotage—which may have been correct, but which also, as still remained true at the weekend, may not.

The relationship between the suppositional reporting on the Air-India crash and Scintrex’s spurt scarcely can be called explicit cause and effect. The company, for one thing, had recently issued an ebullient forecast of 1985 earnings and prospects looked good anyway. But if the judgment of The Globe and Mail’s “industry observers” is to be relied on, an interpretation of events for which remarkably little evidence existed—and all of that insubstantial —exerted an influence on even the supposedly hard heads of investors. If a new

era of terrorism was upon us, the thinking seemingly was that the marketing of a sophisticated new device for sniffing trace amounts of gases emitted by explosives held the promise of growth.

Certainly, a rough survey of my own—25 people interviewed at random on the streets—showed how well the idea had been absorbed that the AirIndia crash was the result of a terrorist act. Most respondents replied that the crash was caused by “a bomb planted by terrorists” or “a bomb” or simply “an explosion.” Even among those who reserved judgment, none failed to mention a bomb first among probable causes.

And why not? An artist’s impression on the cover of this magazine—only one example of the triumph of conviction over unascertainable fact—showed an aircraft resembling a Boeing 747 exploding in midair, beside a heading, “The last hours of Air-India Flight 182.” In a similar vein, the premise of an interview

Stories on a new wave of international terrorism bloomed, but little time was spent on the premise of sabotage

with Transport Minister Don Mazankowski on the CTV program Question Period was established in the first question of the first questioner on the panel of journalists—Alan Fryer of the Ottawa Bureau of CTV—that “the Air-India plane was deliberately blown up, that the bomb was probably put on it either in Toronto or Montreal.” Abroad, U.S. Vice-President George Bush, in London, seemingly ad lib, added the Air-India crash to a list of recent terrorist acts. And the Manchester Guardian Weekly for the week ending June 30 reported that “the evidence is mounting that a bomb exploded aboard the airliner.”

But there was no firm evidence to mount. As late as last midweek, when first one and then the other of the aircraft’s two flight recorders were recovered from the seabed (but their contents had not been interpreted), all of the following said in response to my phone calls that they were without information on which to base conclusions about what happened to Flight 182: the department of transport in Ottawa, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, the U.S. department of state, The Boeing

Co., Air-India in New York, the Cork Regional Hospital (where autopsies were performed on bodies recovered from the sea), the supervisor of air traffic and control at Shannon airport, the Investigation Branch of the department of transport in London, the International Air Transport Association and the United Nations Air Agency, based in Montreal. They nevertheless had some interesting sidelights to offer.

For one thing, it had been anticipated that autopsies on the victims, by determining the nature of the injuries from which they died, would reveal something. The hospital in Cork, while hesitant to discuss what had been found because it was obliged to render all reports first to the state pathologist in Dublin, nevertheless yielded to the suggestion that, without divulging any of the contents, it might say if they had been conclusive of anything. Answer: no, they had been inconclusive.

The air-traffic controller at Shannon acknowledged that a section of tape taken at about the time the Air-India flight went down had been sent to London; he himself had not heard it. That was the tape that the CBC’S The National, among others, reported an Indian source as saying contained the sounds of two explosions and what may have been human screams. A spokesman at the department of transport in London said a copy of the tape contained various indistinct sounds, which may or may not have been from the Air-India aircraft; all aircraft in the vicinity are routinely monitored on the same frequency. The sounds were “such as you would get if you tapped a mike with a finger.” They were not readily describable as explosions. An electronically enhanced copy of the tape was awaited for further analysis.

As well, the U.S. state department, asked if the vice-president’s inclusion of the Air-India crash in a list of recent terrorist acts represented the conclusion of the U.S. government, replied: “Not at all. There is no concrete evidence.”

What does this add up to? Nothing, which is the point. The reporting of the events of June 23 began with the conclusions, which were dramatic, and gradually drew back to the facts, which were few—a reversal of what is supposed to happen, and not particularly useful either to our own credibility or to the readers, viewers and listeners who are our consumers. Except, perhaps, for the few alert to the prospect of a growth industry developing in airport security.