Florence de Changy shared a pre-release copy of her book The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370 with me, a next-of-kin (NOK) of a passenger on-board MH370. I appreciate her gesture.
This book, dealing with the facts and circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, was a gripping read. I spent a little less than a day reading it, skipping much of the night’s sleep.
It was a disturbing weekend. The book took me back to the early hours of 8 March 2014, when the plane disappeared from radar screens and the subsequent futile multi-year search and investigation leading all the way to the present. As I read it, I was aware of the return of deep horror, sadness, anger and utter disbelief; I was encountering people, incidents, milestones and conversations from the last seven years, much of which I had committed to forgetting, and so were now distant memories – devoid of detail, emotive content and clear date-stamps. Revisiting the MH370 saga through the book threatened the foundations of a reconciliation within myself, the peace I had made with not knowing the ‘where, why, who, and how’ of the missing, and my conclusion that as individuals and affected families we couldn’t do much more; establishing truth and justice required a much broader coalition of the public, institutions and governments.
I have known Florence since 2015 as a journalist and contributor to Le Monde. Our first encounter was anything but cordial. Over an hour’s Skype call, I experienced her as needlessly aggressive, and her questions as laced with suspicion of everyone and all things. I told her so. It was an alien experience to be badgered by a journalist working on a deadline to deliver a manuscript. I got the impression she worked hard, was always ‘at work’, to whom everyone was a potential source, and every meeting, an opportunity. We later met at an MH370 anniversary event in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 and have stayed in touch, on and off.
She is perhaps one of the few journalists who has stayed with the MH370 story and approached it with a critical eye. She has never been satisfied with the official narrative and has been willing to challenge what was glossed over or offered as a handout. She risked being unpopular. It was apparent that for her, being sentimental or seeking popularity came in the way of her relentless pursuit of the truth.
This book, I suspect, is an updated and more extensively researched version of her previous book on MH370 (in French). Here, she presents an alternative scenario to what is widely accepted – I believe her when she says she does not like hazarding a view on what might have happened, but I think she succumbed to the call for ‘her take’.
In its essence, the probable scenario painted is not new: that there was sensitive cargo of interest to the Chinese that had to be intercepted to prevent them getting their hands on it, that there was a snafu and the plane had to be brought down. We have all heard some variant of this story. We called it a conspiracy theory then. It is open to the reader to once again dismiss it as one. But in light of all the information she has marshalled, one may want to give it a hard appraisal.
She systematically dismantles or at least succeeds in sowing doubt in the prevalent narrative. It is ultimately left to one’s threshold of what one might consider as facts and evidence, to accept some of her conclusions. There are hunches, hearsay, named and unnamed sources, expert opinions, documents and reports in the public domain, and those that are confidential.
As we progress with our reading, we are told that the story about MH370’s ‘turnback’ just before entering Vietnamese airspace and its subsequent twists and turns leading to its terminal point in the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO), after flying for over seven hours, is false, and is very likely a deliberate fabrication to deflect attention from the tragedy of a crash in the South China Sea.
Florence contends that the pointers of a turnback, based on military radars, have not been verified by independent experts and are unreliable – it was never established with certainty that Malaysia’s military radar showed MH370, that the Inmarsat plots of MH370 all the way to the ‘Seventh Arc’ off the coast of west Australia are bogus, and that the first officer’s cell-phone handshake at Penang is a creative, supplemental touch to bolster a concocted story. All debris finds are dubious or inconclusive and are intended to keep the ‘SIO theory’ intact and reinforced.
Further, according to Florence, the search operation of over three years in the Southern Indian Ocean, headed by Australia, was a case of masterful misdirection to keep attention away from any serious probe into the mass murder / accident in the South China Sea. We are asked to believe that the world has been an unwitting witness to a global disinformation campaign, that included the ‘Big Powers’, to deflect attention and avoid searching questions about the catastrophe that happened on the night of 7-8 March 2014!
Given the above contentions, the cockpit crew are released from potential criminality or culpability in the loss of the plane and lives. The captain emerges as a competent and loyal man, of sound mind, and free of any tell-tale signs of distress, ill health, or compulsions. The pilot-suicide theory that has gained ground in recent months is cast aside on the basis of her own ‘investigations’ and is also rendered a non-issue since the SIO theory is done away with.
What is astonishing is not just that the turnback of MH370 – the very basis of all the search and investigation after the initial few days and till recently – is jettisoned, but also the claim that the flight flew on for another hour or so along its intended flight path to Beijing before hitting the waters of the South China Sea.
This is only a bald listing of some of the key arguments, claims and assertions. In the book, these are bolstered by extensive review and discussion of the officially declared ‘facts’, the decisions regarding search and investigation by Malaysia, Australia, China and other parties, the geo-political context and the alliances, the likely stakes that influenced roles that different governments played. No country comes through as honourable or reassuring. Not even France. It would appear that each country extracted a price for its silence and complicity in this grand cover-up, the scale of which, if true, boggles the mind.
I have much respect for Ghyslain Wattrelos, who finds mention in the book. He bore a heavy burden of loss and invested a lot of energy in trying to unravel what happened to his wife and children on MH370. He will feel vindicated that his deep suspicions about the SIO theory have been echoed by Florence. He has always maintained that MH370 was shot down and that the Americans knew from the beginning.
She paints a somewhat dark portrait of Sarah Bajc, who was an articulate spokesperson for the distressed families in the first year after the flight’s disappearance, that I find hard to resonate with. CIA perhaps? – She lets the question hang. Blaine Alan Gibson similarly suffers through her description of him as dubious. Was he part of the grand plot? I wouldn’t know. I have spent some hours with both Sarah and Blaine, face-to-face and online; I could describe them as intriguing, each with their own angularities, but no more.
In the shadowy world that is invoked, surely questions will be asked whether Florence is being played by the very intelligence community that she has relied on in part. I think not. I hope not.
A strenuous effort
After reading the book, I came away feeling that Florence has vigorously attempted to turn every little detail, work every source – big or small, and pursue every potential lead however minor, to prise apart the now accepted storyline that we know leads us nowhere. She defers to experts where necessary rather than pretend to be one, and in places takes you along on a lead, hints at ‘something’ (psst-psst!) and no more.
In my view, the purpose of investigative journalism is not to solve a problem or case, but to uncover the truth and further the cause of justice. It is to probe, challenge and inform in a way that prevalent facts, opinions, analyses and conclusions can be verified, tested and eventually trusted. Fresh doubts arise sometimes as an outcome – an invitation to crack open an ironclad narrative that has remained unchallenged. In the process, error, negligence, corruption, collusion, conspiracy, deceit and disinformation come to light. It carries considerable risks since it often entails critically examining the words and deeds of the powers that be, disturbs the veneer of peace and the reign of the status quo. It invites a reappraisal of what has hitherto been held to be true. Florence’s book makes a valuable contribution in this regard.
The alleged cover-up: Implications
If the cover-up theory is corroborated, the scientific establishment that aided and abetted it, the international civil aviation governing body (ICAO), the air accident investigation authorities of a dozen countries, the leading lights of international civil aviation, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and other manufacturers, Inmarsat, and the insurer, Allianz, will all stand condemned for their participation in this sordid fraud on the affected families and the global public.
Whose words do you take as the truth, one wonders. So many, by their strategic silence, will have discredited themselves. The hundreds of thousands of people across the world who pored over millions of satellite images to help locate debris, independent experts who continue to wrestle with complex questions of science and have made the best of the limited information that was shared or leaked, journalists who were considered trustworthy but stand exposed as not having been sufficiently sceptical of the official version, will be justifiably very angry. There may be many, many more who will have had their reputations questioned or tarnished.
For the families of passengers who perished on MH370 – I don’t yet have the words to describe what it will take to comprehend the scale of deception and the utter insensitivity they have experienced if the revelations in the book are established in the coming weeks and months.
The implications are huge. One should expect studied silence or swift dismissal of the book and the author, and protestations of innocence by Malaysia (and others) very soon.
A fresh independent and international investigation
I expect that the book will have its share of critics and enthusiasts. It would be a mistake to dismiss it offhand as the exertions of a conspiratorial MH-ist. The best outcome that one could wish for is an international call to Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and other countries who have allegedly played a role in MH370’s disappearance and subsequent search to come clean, and for the constitution of an international team, under the superintendence of the ICJ or the ICC, to launch its own investigation.
It is to be seen if a consensus emerges on the book’s core assertions. I remain cynical, sceptical. There will be attacks, smears, and questions around the author’s competence. The more the tabloids cover the book, the easier it will be to condemn the book as sensationalism and an attempt to profit from the tragedy.
Back in 2017, when the search for MH370 was terminated for good, Malaysia (along with China and Australia) sought ‘credible new evidence’ that could pinpoint the precise location of the fallen aircraft as a precondition to restart the search. It conveniently ignored its own responsibility in coming up with such evidence. It sat at its high table, giving itself a role as an arbiter of competing commercial bids for a new search and a results-based reward. This shifted the burden of finding MH370 and figuring what really happened to other non-specific entities. Very clever.
What the book does is expose several loose ends, each of which may be a trail to ‘credible new evidence’ and a new search area – but it will not be what the cohort of nations, led by Malaysia, would ever have hoped for.
Notes to myself
I have heard that cover-ups are common in air accidents. I have lived with the feeling that there have been cover-ups in the MH370 investigation too. I didn’t have the wherewithal to point a finger in any specific direction or at anyone. Florence has shown where it could be directed. Simultaneously, deep down, I have lived with the notion that one must deal with people and institutions in good faith, and in the course of time, truth and justice will prevail.
I am asking myself if this is a viable stance and sufficient when dealing with the malevolent. Good faith must go with sharp judgment. Perhaps the lesson is to question everything, deeply. Trust nobody. Nothing. Or maybe the lesson is to trust – not just others, but one’s own instincts too. And value doubts that arise.
The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370 by Florence de Changy (published by HarperCollins) will be released on 4 February 2021.