Flight MH17 Malaysia Airlines

From outrage to recrimination: How the media covered the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash

By Chris Boffey

July 18, 2014 | 5 min read

There are very few mornings when every daily newspaper and media outlet has the same lead.

The Sun was in accusatory mode with its splash today

Normally the Express could find a cancer cure or extreme weather to be different, the Star on a soap actor stubs toe, or the FT on why a derivative swoops scoop matters, if only for a few. Radio 4's Today programme is also prone to going off the big story, especially if it has been on the World Tonight, but not this time.

The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 and the unfolding story – the personal tragedies, the descent into global crisis and catastrophic coincidence of another Malay jetliner going into oblivion – made it not just another big story.

I was lunching with several newspapermen when the first news broke of the 777 going down. The reaction at our table must have been the same as any news desk. Malaysia again. However, one more fact would bring home the grim reality and take the story away from bizarre coincidence to that of global import. It happened over Ukraine airspace.

Of course for newspapers, in particular, the timing could not be better. Mid-afternoon is the prime time for a big story to break. The best people can be put on it and there is enough time to make right and informed decisions about what happened and in this case most importantly, who blew the aircraft out of the sky.

The quality papers were more circumspect in a series of pieces that easily led the reader to believe that this was the work of the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. The tabloids pointed the finger squarely at Moscow and the Sun made it personal with the headline "Putin's missile".

What most of the print-based operations did not have was the detail that came flooding out overnight, some about the passengers on board and much about the weapons at the Ukrainian rebels' disposal, although there was, as always, that xenophobic line of how many Britons were on the plane.

An explanatory fact on the Today programme about why the number of dead changed from 295 to 298 brought home the true horror: the three extra dead were babies who would not have had seats but would be cuddled in their parents' arms.

It may be traitorous as a newspaperman to say this, but on stories like the shooting down of MH17 – a call sign that could come to rival in tragedy that of Lockerbie's Pan Am 103 – radio is often the best medium. The BBC output throughout the night on the World Service and Up All Night on Radio 5 Live was superb, with analysis and on the ground reporting from freelances and clips from other networks. The baton was picked up by the Today programme with interviews from Russia, the US, Ukraine, Malaysia and the Netherlands where most of the victims lived, many of them experts in the treatment of Aids who were on their way to Australia for a conference.

Newspaper websites can never match the immediacy of radio and although social media can be as fast, with a recognised radio programme you know the facts have either been checked or are only repeated with a health warning.

Tomorrow's newspapers will be all about analysis and blame with a smattering of the human stories of those that were killed. Some of the UK anti-Obama press will blame the president and the US for being weak in the face of Russia but the real fury will be directed at Vladimir Putin.

The tragedy of MH17 and the reports from on the ground takes me back to a Wednesday night in late December 1988 when I arrived by taxi in Lockerbie from Carlisle airport having flown with other reporters from London in a private jet. The air was full of the smell of kerosene fumes and wreckage, bodies were strewn around the town and there was a gash in Sherwood Crescent where the fuselage had landed, killing 11 residents.

Twenty six years later there is still debate about who caused the explosion on Pan Am 103; it is to be hoped the truth about the outrage of MH17 will not become just a case of claim and counter claim.

Flight MH17 Malaysia Airlines

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