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On Ships, Shipping and the Media

By Jim Rhodes

As you may know, our company has been deeply involved in the world maritime industry for more than 25 years. I first went to sea as a ship navigator in 1970, so I take a personal interest in the subject. The recent media feeding frenzy over the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia has given me cause for reflection.

It’s sad but true that the news media are just not interested in the world of ships and shipping. The exceptions seem to be (1) when there is a whiff of scandal, as when the master recklessly drives a massive cruise ship with 4,000+ passengers onto a charted reef and is later found bobbing in a lifeboat with his senior deck officers while the passengers struggle desperately to find their way to safety in the dark, (2) when oil is spilt on the waters, polluting public beaches and fouling populations of sea birds, or (3) when a team of U.S. Navy SEALS mount a dramatic rescue of hostages held by pirates.


Costa Concordia.  Photo Credit: CruiseLaw News.

The media are rapidly losing their enthusiasm for the Costa Concordia story. The journalists are packing up their satellite dishes and heading back to chase tomorrow’s news. The passengers have been repatriated, their pockets stuffed with business cards from members of the ambulance-chasing profession, and now the dreary work is left to be done by the teams of investigators searching for clues and salvagers who will pump out the ship’s bunker tanks and refloat the wreck to be towed to a drydock for repairs. 

I hasten to say that the trade media are an exception, and the leading maritime trade journals have done a good job of presenting the story in a thorough, fair and balanced way. One of the best sources is the excellent website, where you will find expert commentary by people who know what they’re talking about, unlike the talking heads trotted out for 15-second sound bites by the news broadcasters as fillers between the latest unsubstantiated rumors.

Returning to my original premise, while the news media were falling over each other to cover the Costa Concordia, other ship casualties were going virtually unnoticed. Last Thursday, February 2, 2012, the passenger ferry Rabaul Queen sank in heavy weather with 350 people on board off Papua New Guinea. Rescue operations were underway the following day but more than 100 are still listed as missing. Also that Thursday, a cargo ship carrying scrap metal from Russia sank off the coast of Turkey in stormy seas. So far only three of the crew have been rescued. Turkish authorities are searching for the remaining 10 with little hope of success.

And where were the media when the bulk carrier Vinalines Queen plunged to the bottom of the sea off Luzon in the Philippines with 22 Vietnamese seafarers on Christmas Day? 

You would have a hard time finding these stories in any western newspaper or news broadcast.

And while the media were breathlessly reporting the exciting story of the rescue of two hostages in Somalia by a U.S. special warfare team, how many of them took advantage of the opportunity to cover the bigger story – that according to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, 13 ships were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia during the month of January? At this writing, pirate gangs are holding 10 ships and 159 seafarers hostage in Somalia pending ransom negotiations. There are reports of escalating violence and even torture of hostages by their captors. It’s a scandal, and the indifference of the western media to their plight is appalling.

To a large extent, the maritime industry has no one to blame but itself. People who own and operate ships inhabit a murky and shadowy world, and they seem to like it that way. Take the ship that just sank off Turkey, for example. The ship was likely owned by Russian interests (who knows?), flew the Cambodian flag and carried a crew of mostly Ukrainians. In years gone by, many major newspapers had an expert writer or two covering the maritime beat. Nowadays, if you try to explain a concept like flags of convenience to journalists, you’re likely to get nothing but blank stares of incomprehension with the implied message, “Our readers don’t care about this stuff, and neither do we.”