Family engineer insists story has holes | 10.08.05

So many Bangkok Post should retract

As you may’ve guessed, I’ve been too busy to blog lately. Yet yesterday the Bangkok Post’s hideous lead story, “US experts insist runways cracked”, spurred me into blogging action. I gathered information, learned the truth, sought further evidence, organized my thoughts, and then… went to bed, of course.

When I woke up this morning, my scoop was gone. The Post had retracted the story.

Retraction

A tour of the West Runway of Suvarnabhumi airport yesterday found no cracks in the middle of the runway as earlier reported by the Bangkok Post. There were small cracks on the shoulders. The aviation source who told the Post that US experts said the runway would have to be rebuilt because of serious cracks was clearly wrong. The Post deeply regrets its error and apologises for any embarassment caused to the government and the airport authority.

Now this never happens in Thailand without someone getting sued. And even a litigation-induced retraction is usually billed discretely as an “announcement” and always placed on the most obscure spot possible (they always find one, even when the settlement terms require that the retraction be on the front page).

The Post retraction today is nothing like that. It is swift. It is clearly labeled “retraction”. It is on the front page, under a related lead story. So kudos to the Post for, today, being notches above the scum of the journalism. (Did I mention it’s the first such retraction I’ve ever seen in the Bangkok Post? See note below.)

So everything’s hunky-dory now? Heck no, I won’t let go. Although virtually all of my blog preparation yesterday was to get the facts straight, it was always the ethics of this story that upset me more. And the Bangkok Post was not notches above the scum of journalism yesterday.

Let’s first get the facts out of the way, though. Quite surprisingly, the official explanations correct and cogent in and of themselves. Here’s Deputy Transport Minister Chainant Charoensiri, an engineer by training, in yesterday’s story:

Gen Chainant insisted yesterday there were only cracks which occurred due to a technical process on the shoulder of the western runway.

He said ground improvement was going on next to the western runway to prepare for the construction of taxi-ways to adjoin the third runway to be built in the future.

In the process, according to him, sand and gravel are dumped to compress soil on the airport site which is on swampy ground so the original soil will be firm enough for future taxi-way construction. As the compressed soil subsides, cracks are expected to occur normally and have appeared on the adjacent western runway shoulder.

And here’s Somchai Sawasdeepon, from Airports of Thailand PLC in today’s Bangkok Post:

Somchai Sawasdeepon, senior executive vice-president of Airports of Thailand Plc, explained yesterday that the construction process of the first two runways at Suvarnabhumi airport had been standard from the first stage of the ground improvement nine years ago.

He said as the airport was being built on a swampy land plot, sand and gravel were dumped on the old soil to press water out of it. The pressing process took a year and a half and the old soil subsided by 1.50m. Afterwards, runways, taxi-ways and aircraft parking lots were built on the soil.

Recently, more ground improvement work took place next to the West Runway to prepare for construction of the third runway and additional taxi-ways to be completed in the next four to five years. The same pressing process was repeated and naturally caused the minor cracks on the shoulder of the West Runway. The effect was expected and acceptable and would not affect the West Runway at all, Mr Somchai said.

All of that has been independently confirmed by a family friend who is a civil engineer with 40 years of experience and who, I may add, is a fierce Thaksin critic. (That last bit shouldn’t matter, since this long-running and long-delayed project has been a product of a succession of governments, with site work dating back to the first half of the 1990s. But try telling that to the press and Thaksin bashers.)

There isn’t much I can add to it. With a name like “Cobra Swamp” (Nong Ngu Hao, หนองงูเห่า), even a layman can probably guess this site needs a lot of work. The official airport website has a breakdown of work on the site improvement and main airfield pavement. There are also photographs of the east runway ground improvement process (note that you’re not seeing finished tarmac in the series’ latest photos).

Just to sum it up: the runways stay up atop the solid ground that has been drained and compacted (pre-sunk, if you will), while the rest of the site continues to sink. The parts on which the third runway will be built sink even faster, as they are undergoing the same consolidation process that the two existing runways did before. Quite naturally, where the non-sinking and the fast-sinking meets — at the edges, that is — there will be cracks. When the fast-sinking in due course becomes the non-sinking, these edges will be rebuilt and there will be no cracks. Easy, no?

The authorities have been trying to get this across for a while now. But to Thailand’s medieval media, science and logic are never so captivating as hocus-pocus. And hocus-pocus, plus a chance for more government-baiting, is just what this “aviation source” offered the Bangkok Post, who took it hook, line, and sinker:

US experts insist runways cracked

Thaksin, Chainant say airport problem-free

A team of US aviation experts is insisting that both runways at Suvarnabhumi airport need reconstruction as there are severe cracks that are large enough to sink the nose wheel of an aircraft, according to an aviation source.

They are also not tiny cracks on runway shoulders that the deputy transport minister showed to reporters, the source said.

But Deputy Transport Minister Chainant Charoensiri and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra deny there is a problem.

The source said yesterday that the serious cracks were at the “touchdown” points of both the western and eastern runways of the new and now-delayed Suvarnabhumi airport.

So an anonymous source said nameless experts (who the source said, quite conveniently, had already left Thailand) found cracks on the runways, and it is stated as a fact in the post headline. The prime minister’s and the transport minister’s explanations — actually much more detailed, by the way — are portrayed as ear-covering denials (note “Thaksin, Chainant say”).

And this is a newspaper so steep in its scare-quote–abusing ways that it added one to “breakthrough” in Reuter’s headline: “Russia and EU agree on breakthrough deal”.

Where was your critical thinking this time, “The Newspaper You Can Trust”? “Touchdown”? That’s more of a jargon quote. Apparently your “source” was considered more trustworthy than the wire services. I hate scare “quotes” in headlines, which many times aren’t really quotes, but paraphrases. But the serious outfits that do use them (e.g. the BBC) would surely put one on “US experts”. Or perhaps the whole thing: “US experts insist runways cracked”. No, actually they wouldn’t, because they wouldn’t base a whole article on an unverified anonymous tip about an unknown anonymous report.

(Now if the Bangkok Post truly wants to be a respectable, scare-quote–wielding paper, then how about putting a huge pair on the margin of every one of its pages? That’s an idea. An extra plus: the printing area would be extremely small.)

Coming back to the article in question, there are indeed two real quotations in it. And their abused presence is even more devious than the absence of scare quotes for the “source”. That’ll have to wait till next time, though. Good night.

update A follow-up: “A retraction of my own”, which includes the “note” that I referred to but forgot to write in this post.

update The Bangkok Post fires the senior editor who wrote the story.

18:03 ▪ media, politics

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