Germanwings and The Public’s Right to Know

William Langewiesche interviewed in Vanity Fair:

Is it unusual for an investigator or prosecutor to make such a bold announcement so soon after a crash?

Yes, it’s unusual, and, in a way, it’s a little inexplicable. The French system is different from the American system. It’s quite good, but it divides into two parts. There’s the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses (B.E.A.), which is the technical investigators—the equivalent of our N.T.S.B. They’re very cautious, when it comes to releasing information—too much so. But there’s also always, in France, a parallel criminal investigation, because deaths are involved, and a Napoleonic mindset requires this.

That’s who this prosecutor in Marseille is. These are not people who are experienced with airplane accidents. The quality of these criminal investigations varies, depending on the quality of the consultants they bring in. Sometimes they’re quite good, even better than the B.E.A. In this case, I don’t know.

Were this an N.T.S.B. investigation, we would see a very different kind of information release. I would expect that we would see a neutral release of what we found in the recorder, and not pointing the finger at the co-pilot. You can include that we heard breathing, and the pilot hammering on the door, and that the cruising altitude was reselected, but leave it at that at for a few days. Let others point fingers, I say.

Langewiesche has a point, but I think it only goes so far. There's complaint especially in the German-speaking media about too much information being revealed about this plane crash, the use of the co-pilot's full name, commentators jumping to conclusions, etc. 

I think the authorities have done well. They have made important, reliable information available as soon as they had it. Especially by European standards, the level of transparency has been excellent. When 149 people have just been murdered, the public deserves answers as soon as the authorities have a basis for giving them. That's just what the French and German authorities have been doing.

As for releasing the co-pilot's name, what is this, 1995? Most countries do not see any reason to conceal the image or name of adults involved in major accidents or crimes (except for sexual assaults), so it seems a bit silly for German newspapers to continue coyly referring to him as 'Andreas L' when his name is available everywhere on the Internet. 

Perhaps in the fulness of time we'll learn something different about how this crash occurred, but that's true of any breaking story. People who are complaining about speculation aren't thinking things through. By releasing lots of information soon after they've learned it, the authorities have actually greatly reduced the amount of speculation about the cause of the crash.

One thought on “Germanwings and The Public’s Right to Know

  1. BILDblog takes the opposite position (German):

    I can only speak for myself: as soon as the news was out that the pilot presumeably had crashed the plane intentionally, I wondered about his background. And here I agree with Andrew: I wasn’t only interested in speculations about his intentions, I was at least as much interested if the full name and some information about his background would soon cause a disgusting storm of accusations — or, on the contrary, cut those down to a minimum.
    I looked up the news at, and there it was, the full name including a photo.

    In this context I’d like to point to an article from the Guardians new chief editor, Katharine Viner, from 2013: in German, in English .
    She basically says that some newspapers run their online news business still with the mindset of old printing edition days.
    And, I’m sorry to say that, that BILDblog position above is also still too much rooted in those old days when the media controlled information and the readers were loyal subscribers of the newspaper they could identify with.


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