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Reflect! Reflect! The importance of the Falklands/Malvinas

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Reflect! Reflect! The importance of the Falklands/Malvinas precedent

By Richard Lance Keeble

As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict approaches, Richard Lance Keeble assesses its importance in the history of British militarism and mainstream media

On 14 April 1982, The Times featured a Gallup poll which indicated the public thought Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, Lincolnshire, was the worst prime minister in British history (see Dillon 1989: 120). Soon afterwards, the victory of British forces in a manufactured ‘war’ – after Argentine invaded a group of tiny, largely unknown islands 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic – transformed her into a national super-hero. As the 30th anniversary of the conflict approaches (and the release of the film, The Iron Lady, places even more spotlight on Thatcher) it is worthwhile reflecting on the importance of the conflict in the history of British militarism and mainstream media.

Just as there is considerable evidence that the American administration, through satellite, diplomatic and human intelligence, knew full well of Iraq’s ambitions towards Kuwait in the build-up to August 1990 (and may well have encouraged it) and of the plans to attack the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001 so too there is evidence that Britain anticipated Argentine’s invasion of the islands – and saw the opportunities for a quick and successful new militarist adventure (Morley 1991; see also Greaves 1991).

Five years before the Falklands ‘war’, a mini-task force was secretly despatched to the islands to deter an Argentinian attack. Official documents released for the first time in 2005 revealed that James Callaghan’s Labour government ordered Operation Journeyman after 50 Argentinian ‘scientists’ landed on the island of South Thule, provoking fears of a larger attack. The operation was conducted in total secrecy – far away from the glare of the media. Not even the crew members knew where they were going (Travis 2005).

Was the Argentine invasion a ‘surprise’?
The press and government presented the 1982 Argentinian invasion as a ‘surprise’.i In fact, they were well prepared. A British ‘possession’ since January 1833, the islands were a constant source of tension between Argentina and UK. On 12 October 1979, for instance, Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary in Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s government, sent a memo to the Cabinet sub-committee, the Overseas Defence Committee, warning that continuing talks with the Argentinians without making concessions on sovereignty carried a serious threat of invasion (Blakeway 1992: 13). By 1981 Argentinian impatience with lack of progress in talks on sovereignty was growing. And British authorities were well aware this could boil over into military action (Parsons 2000: 22-3). In July 1981, the Joint Intelligence Committee reported: ‘If Argentina thought there was no prospect of eventual transfer of sovereignty, it might take military action, swiftly and without warning and this could go as far as a full-scale invasion of the Falklands Islands.’

There was also clear pressure in Argentina to seize islands. On 23 March 1976, General Jorge Videla ii overthrew the Peronist government and put a military regime in place. In the battle against liberal and left-wing thought that followed up to 20,000 people (most often university graduates) were tortured and killed. The British government made no protests. Moreover, in early June 1981, the Defence Secretary, John Nott, published a radical Defence Review (with the support of PM Thatcher) calling for major cuts – including the scrapping of HMS Endurance whose presence in the South Atlantic had symbolised Britain’s commitment to the Falkland islands. To many critics in the UK, these cuts seemed to send the wrong signals to Argentina. On 22 December 1981 General Leopoldo Galtieri took power at the head of a military junta as the 150th anniversary of Britain’s annexation approached. The economy was deteriorating sharply (with inflation of 600 per cent), bringing mass public protests and trade union demonstrations. Then Galtieri suffered a serious foreign policy setback when arbitration over Argentine’s territorial dispute with Chile went in favour of the latter. The crusade to re-take the Malvinas ‘was about the only policy still viable that would unite Argentine public opinion’ (ibid: 26).

On 24 January 1982, the right-wing nationalist Iglesias Rouco revealed Argentina’s plans for the Falklands which did not rule out military invasion in his column in the Buenos Aires newspaper, La Prensa. According to Denys Blakeway (1992: 23): ‘The article was planted by the Junta, with whom Rouco had excellent relations.’ On 9 February 1982, the English-language newspaper, the Bueonos Aires Herald, published an editorial highlighting rumours of possible Argentinian military action against the Falklands. On 2 March 1982, Col. Stephen Love, the British Military Attaché in Buenos Aires, wrote to the Governor of the Falkland Islands, Rex Hunt, copied to the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office, warning of an Argentinian invasion (ibid: 25).

Moreover, Sir Henry Leach, Chief of Naval Staff and First Sea Lord (1979-82), recalled how he had met Thatcher, the Defence Secretary and other top military and government officials in the House of Commons on 31 March – two days before the invasion. He told the meeting: ‘On the basis of the latest intelligence I think we must assume that the Falkland Islands will be invaded and that this will happen in the next few days’ (Dale 2002: 58). It was also very clear to Harold Briley, BBC Latin America Correspondent 1979-1983. ‘Three months before the invasion I warned all BBC news editors that I expected trouble approaching the 150th anniversary of what the Argentinians say was Britain’s seizure of the Falklands in January 1833. General Leopoldi Galtieri’s military coup in Argentina the previous December, his ambition to create a “Greater Argentina” by winning back the Malvinas, and the appointment of Dr Costa Mendez as Foreign Secretary sent the clear signal of likely conflict’ (Dale op cit: 114). Sir John Nott, defence secretary, also confirmed: ‘Our intelligence services intercepted a series of signals which left little doubt that an invasion was planned for the morning of Friday 2 April’ (ibid: 212).

According to William Engdahl (2004), the issue was not that Argentina’s Galtieri government had, with justification, claimed sovereignty over the islands and retaken then on April 1. Nor was the issue that the surrounding area was believed by some to contain rich untapped petroleum reserves. The real aim of the Thatcher administration was to enforce the principle of the collection of Third World debts by a new form of nineteenth century ‘gunboat diplomacy’. ‘Argentina was the third largest debtor nation at the time with $38 billion in foreign debts and the country which appeared closest to default. The staged Malvinas conflict…was merely the pretext to persuade other Nato members to back what was termed “out of area” military response’ (ibid: 186).

Perfect for propaganda purposes
But the invasion by the ‘Argies’ (codenamed Operation Rosario) was perfect for propaganda purposes. Britain, the vulnerable state, could present itself as the victim of sudden, unprovoked aggression. Very few people before the conflict had ever heard of the islands. A map, produced by the Foreign Office just months earlier, had even omitted them! Argentina at the time was closely allied to the United States, deeply embroiled in supporting the terrorist Contras for the Reagan administration in Nicaragua (Woodward 1987: 127-77, 187-89, 212; Andrew 1995: 465). As an official history of the conflict, published by Marshall Cavendish, records (2007: 35), under President Reagan Argentina, criticised by the Carter administration for its appalling human rights record, was ‘welcomed back into the fold’. ‘A two-way traffic in generals and other dignitaries began: Galtieri paid two visits to Washington; General Vernon Walters, the President’s “troubleshooter”, General David Meyer, Army Chief of Staff and Mrs Jeanne Kirkpatrick, UN Ambassador, went to Buenos Aires.’ Perhaps even unknown to President Reagan, assistant secretary of state for Latin American Affairs, Thomas Enders, travelled to Buenos Aires in March 1982 to privately assure the Galtieri government that the dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Malvinas would not draw US participation (Engdahl op cit: 187).

A secret document from the National Security Council files in Washington, released in March 1992, revealed that the US sought to persuade the UK into a ceasefire before Port Stanley on the Falklands was taken. President Reagan viewed the military junta led by General Galtieri as more acceptable than any leftist Peronist who might take over (Boseley 1992). Significantly, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, had regular contacts with members of the Galtieri government to pass on details of her government’s latest diplomatic intentions (Jackson 2006). A massive propaganda campaign was, therefore, required to demonise the sudden new ‘enemy’ and glorify the heroic response of the British government.

The Falklands conflict was to set a hugely significant precedent repeated in Grenada, Libya, Panama and the Gulf (1990-1991) – and later on in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Here was a First World country with a considerable military tradition behind it taking on a Third World country almost entirely dependent on First World countries for supplying its army. (Indeed, Argentine’s most deadly weapons had been supplied by Britain or its allies.) Crucially, Argentine was a militarist state, run by a corrupt military dictatorship and relying on a 30,000-strong army in which 12, 000 were conscripts and where morale and discipline was known by British intelligence to be low (Bramley 1991; Blakeway op cit: 71). Significantly, in 2009, 120 soldiers gave testimony in a landmark court case alleging human rights abuses including murder, torture and starvation by Argentine commanding officers (Strange 2009).

Britain, on the other hand, relied on a small, professional army, strongly committed to fighting to win. Just British 102 ships and 29,000 soldiers featured in the conflict. Moreover, the British army was secretly nuclearised – just in case the Russians intervened on behalf of Argentina (Rogers 1994). One nuclear weapon was actually lost in the South Atlantic (ibid: 6). The government furiously denied all such claims but then in December 2003, the Ministry of Defence finally admitted that British ships carried nuclear weapons to the Falklands. The revelation followed a six-year campaign by the Guardian under the open government code. The government was also forced at the same time to publish a list of 20 accidents and mishaps involving nuclear weapons between 1960 and 1991 (Evans and Leigh 2003).

Britain’s national security was hardly at stake in this little adventure for control of an unknown group of island populated largely by penguins (Belgrano Action Group: 1988)iii But during the 74-day conflict, 255 Britons were killed, 649 Argentinians died while 12,978 Argentinians were taken prisoner (McGarvey 2010). The Argentinian army, composed largely of reluctant conscripts, was hardly a credible enemy.iv As Max Hastings conceded (2000: 363): ‘The Falklands War flattered the British army because the Argentinian ground force never showed the will or competence to punish mistakes, exploit vulnerabilities, seize tactical chances, in the fashion that any first-division enemy would have done.’ The conflict solved nothing. Neither side ever admitted there was a war. And it was tightly limited by both sides. Though the Argentinian army withdrew from the islands, no formal ceasefire was signed (war never having been declared) and the conflict over the rights to the sovereignty over the Falklands remains to this day. Britain currently deploys 1,200 military personnel on the island to ‘protect’ the estimated 2,600 islanders at a cost of £110m. a year. (MacAskill, Goni and Balch 2006).

But the logic of the permanent war economy is to fight wars. And this the British military were all set to do. Involvement in the escapade for the British public could be realised only through their consumption of the heavily censored, patriotic media. Dillon (1987: 123) is sceptical about the impact of the media. He writes: ‘There is no denying that media manipulation by the government and news manipulation by the media were features of the conflict – as they are in all conflict. But it is difficult to determine precisely what contribution they made to public reactions already excited by Argentine’s attack beyond that of conferring and reaffirming the sentiments involved.’ In fact, the Falklands ‘war’ demonstrated the centrality of the media in new militarist societies – just as later during the 1991 massacres. As Shaw commented (1987: 154): ‘While Britain in the Second World War can be seen as the archetypal “citizen war” of total war through democratic mobilisation, the Falklands are the vindication of small professional armed forces, acting on behalf of the nation but needing no real mass participation to carry out their tasks. For the vast majority involvement was limited to utterly passive, vicarious consumption of exceptionally closely filtered news and the expression of support in opinion polls.’

Pools and the propaganda of new militarism
In 1977, a secret Ministry of Defence paper on ‘Public relations planning in emergency operations’ stated that ‘for planning purposes it is anticipated that 12 places should be available to the media, divided equally between ITN, the BBC and the press…The press should be asked to give an undertaking that copy and photographs should be pooled’ (Harris 1983: 149). But following the intervention of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham, the Falklands reporting pool was increased from 12 to just 29 British journalists. v Significantly there were no women reporters (though the official war artist was Linda Kitson). As Chambers, Steiner and Fleming (2004: 2008) comment: ‘Women featured only as passive victims in reports on the “human interest” angle as the mothers wives and girlfriends of the servicemen who died or survived the fighting.’

In the end, the reporters came to identify closely with the military (Morrison and Tumber 1988; Hooper 1982). The patriotic imperative so deeply rooted in the dominant political and media culture, together with journalistic self-censorship and the hyper-jingoism and crude ‘enemy’ baiting of the pops, all served to transform new militarism into spectator sport with the war consumed as a form of entertainment (Luckham 1983: 18). As Max Hastings, of the Evening Standard, wrote of his fellow correspondents in the pool in the lead-up to the assault on Port Stanley in June 1982 (2000: 348-9):

'Most of us have found great satisfaction in being able to thrust ourselves, for once in our professional lives, wholeheartedly into the service of a cause without bothering very much about moral or political dilemmas. For better or worse, we are part of British expeditionary forces 8,000 miles from home, fighting under considerable difficulties to evict Argentines from a cluster of island which feel so ridiculously British that it is hard to believe we are not on Dartmoor, or in Sutherland or Pembrokeshire.'

In London and the South Atlantic, MoD media officers constantly intervened to restrict reporting of specific events. Short and formal statements from the MoD, often announced by the acting head of public relations, Ian McDonald, in a slow and halting style, combined with the D notice system of voluntary restraint served to restrict the flow of information (Dodds 2005: 223). Dodds comments (ibid: 224): ‘Appropriately for a country with a highly developed culture of official secrecy, “operational security” became a catch-all term to protect a range of ills from incompetent military planning, misinformation, lack of planning, inter-service rivalry and poor organisation.’ From the very start of the conflict the British media were used by the government and military for propaganda and disinformation. On 29 March 1982, ITN’s defence correspondent, reported from Gibraltar that a nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Superb, had been seen leaving harbour and was heading for the Falklands. The next day, the Daily Telegraph confirmed the report, with the Ministry of defence adding that it was the first of two boats to head south. But, as Blakeway (op cit: 35) comments: ‘The story was bogus. Superb was not sailing south but heading north to return to base. British submarines did not set sail for another two days. Frank Cooper, then Permanent Under-Secretary at the MoD, believed that the Argentines should be warned.’

Largely ‘bloodless’ war
Satellite facilities were denied the media – while contrived delays in the transmission of television images meant that this was largely a bloodless war (Greenberg and Smith 1982; McNair 1995: 176). The media pool included only two photographers (McLaughlin 2002: 32): the most famous war photographer of the day, Don McCullin, was blacklisted from going. In the end, only 202 photographs were transmitted, most of those contrived by the military for propaganda purposes (ibid). Harris reported (op cit: 59): ‘In an age of supposedly instant communications, what were perhaps the most eagerly awaited television pictures in the world travelled homewards at a steady 25 knots.’ Television reporters Brian Hanrahan (of the BBC) and Mike Nicholson (of ITN) were reduced virtually to the role of radio correspondents; footage was shot but by the time it reached London (where, like print copy, it was reviewed again by the MoD), it was almost like the ‘Dead Sea scrolls’, according to ITN editor David Nicholas (Carruthers 2000: 127).

But the policy was reversed when an image judged to be ‘supportive’ was transmitted to London at top speed. Such a photograph was that taken by Tom Smith of a soldier accepting a cup of tea from a Falklands island family which featured in the Sunday Mirror of 23 May under the headline ‘Cuppa for a brave Para’. Caroline Brothers has commented (1997: 208):

'The photograph was a quintessential image of Britishness. The custom of tea drinking was projected as a hallmark of English culture, while the symbolic picket fence signalled ownership and domestication of this far-flung corner of empire, legitimising the campaign to re-establish sovereignty over it. The smiles of the village women and children expressed gratitude for a job well done, fitting effortlessly into the up-beat narrative of a conflict whose less pleasant aspects had been conscientiously expunged.'

In contrast, Martin Cleaver’s photograph of HMS Antelope’s explosion was delayed for three weeks since it was judged to be bad for morale (Dodds op cit: 225).

But not all the censorship was imposed by the state; journalists also indulged in self censorship. There were pictures of dead bodies in the Press Association library which had been released by the Ministry, but newspaper editors decided not to use them (Taylor 1992: 15). The press were exploited not only as ‘transmitters of a symbolic demonstration of military power’ but also as propagandists to confuse and ‘disinform’ the enemy. When landing on the Falklands were being planned, disinformation was leaked to the media and, inevitably, to the Argentinians (Harris op cit: 92).

Significantly, the Battle of Goose Green, of 28 May 1982, the first major engagement in the conflict, was more a media, spectacular event dictated by the government’s need for a morale boosting ‘victory’ rather than military necessity, according to the official history of the conflict by Sir Lawrence Freedman (Norton-Taylor and Evans 2005). The British commander on the islands, Brigadier Julian Thompson, did not consider the capture of Goose Green a military priority. But the Thatcher government was impatient for some kind of successful operation after a week in May 1982 when Argentinian aircraft scored several hits on UK warships. Max Hastings confirms this analysis in his account of the campaign (2000: 325): ‘Although the victory at Goose Green proved of value in the end, inflicting a heavy blow on Argentinian morale, Thompson thought it a diversion from the vital drive on Stanley, and thus a battle fought to appease the politicians back at home.’

Foot’s gung-ho response
The gung-ho, belligerent response of Michael Foot, leader of the opposition Labour Party, outspoken peace campaigner and member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands took his party and even Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Maiden’, by surprise. When parliament was recalled for an emergency session on Saturday 3 April 1982, Foot fumed: ‘The Falkland Islanders have been betrayed. The responsibility for the betrayal rests with government.’ He continued: ‘…there is the longer term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland islands but to people all over this dangerous planet.’ Foot’s official biographer Kenneth O. Morgan (2007: 412-3) records: ‘While Mrs Thatcher appeared strangely halting and subdued, Foot’s fiery utterances won massive acclaim on the Conservative benches…The Labour benches were somewhat stunned.’ The Guardian commented that Foot had stolen the show ‘through force of oratory and command of language’. Indeed, the consensus support for the war in all the three major parties meant that any opposition, however faint, could be condemned as traitorous.

The BBC, following a Panorama programme which dared to feature some war doubters and sceptics, was publicly attacked by Ministers and Conservative MPs. For instance, the programme was denounced by Sally Oppenheim MP in the House as ‘an odious subversive travesty’ that ‘dishonoured the right to free speech’. Margaret Thatcher did not dissent. Presenter Robert Kee, a former bomber pilot and prisoner of war in the Second World War, wrote to The Times dissociating himself (Dale 2002: 121-2). In their study of television coverage, the Glasgow University Media Group (1985: 127-9) showed that the controversial Panorama programme, ‘Can we avoid war’ on 10 May 1982, contained more statements in support of government policy than against. Moreover, according to John Pilger (2004a: xxii), the minutes of the BBC’s Weekly Review Board showed that its coverage was shaped to suit the ‘emotional sensibilities of the public’, that most of the coverage was concerned with government statements of policy and that the impartial style was felt to be ‘an unnecessary irritation’.

However, following the row the BBC developed new strategies of self censorship. For instance, the BBC decided not to publish details of the landings at San Carlos supposedly to prevent the Argentinians from gaining valuable military information in response to an MoD request (Dodds op cit: 226). Moreover, a study by Brian McNair (op cit: 177) found that coverage, in general, was deferential to and supportive of dubious official claims of military success. The war was sanitised for television viewers and the non-military possibilities of a resolution to the conflict were marginalised.

But the media ‘enemy within’, threatening the vulnerable state, had to be attacked. Even so there was an element of theatre here. The Conservative government was responding to the demands and prejudices of its increasingly confident right-wing. The BBC could present itself as independent of the state and the defender of journalistic freedom and integrity. As Noam Chomsky argues (1989: 48), such conflict has a ‘system re-inforcing character’. He writes: ‘Controversy may rage so long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites and it should, furthermore, be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns.’

Military and political leaders of new militarist societies know well that long, overt wars are both costly and unpopular. The Falklands seemed to prove that a short war against a relatively weak Third World country (though its strength is generally exaggerated since victories are dependent on the existence of a credible enemy fighting force) was achievable. At the same time, covert activity still remains the dominant strategy. After the Falklands, six official inquiries were held into various aspects of the government-media relations.

Certainly, the clumsy bureaucracy and inter-personal rivalries within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) showed that ‘cock-ups’ (a concept much favoured in journalists’ culture since it seems to embrace a healthy scepticisms towards the powerful – and, more significantly, marginalise the importance of more profound institutional and ideological factors) can co-exist with historically conditioned, long-term factors. Journalists criticised the MoD not because they opposed the absurdities and wastefulness of the imperialistic, new militarist adventure but because various manifestations of bureaucratic incompetence prevented them from getting their story.


i The intelligence services also blamed cutbacks at South American stations in the years leading up to the conflict for the Argentinian invasion ‘disaster’. According to Philip H.J. Davies (2004: 290): ‘If anything good can be said of the war, it must be that the Falklands crisis brought badly needed Prime Ministerial attention to the intelligence community, along with badly needed additional funding and resourcing.’ According to her private secretary, Sir Charles Powell, Thatcher ‘increased their funding and supported them in ways no Prime Minister since the Second World War had done’.
ii In December 2010, Videla was sentenced for life in prison for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners, most of them shot while trying to escape after the 1976 coup. Most of the two dozen former police and military official tried with Videla also received life sentences.
iii And is not the concept of ‘war casualty’ problematic? Casualties can be suffered long after the actual conflict is over. For instance, while 255 UK deaths were recorded during the war, more than 400 Falklands veterans committed suicide between 1982 and 2008. See Crampton, Robert (2008). Significantly the Ministry of Defence by 2008 had not released any data relating to post-Iraq/Afghanistan suicides. In March 2008, the Independent launched a campaign ‘Fight for our veterans’ for better mental health treatment for war veterans. It was backed by Robert Lawrence who won the Military Cross for bravery in the Falklands War: he was shot by a sniper just hours before the Argentinian surrender.
iv But the Soviet journalist, Sergei Brilev, claimed in a book published in 2010 that the Soviet Union gave vital satellite intelligence to the Argentina Air Force. A satellite launched on 15 May was particularly useful – withArgentine missiles sinking HMS Coventry and the support ship Atlantic Conveyor on 25 May. Brilev also claimed that Norway intercepted Soviet satellite photographs showing the General Belgrano’s position and passed them on to Britain as an ally. Some 368 Argentinian lives were lost when it was later sunk in controversial circumstances. See Tony Halpin: Moscow ‘gave junta help’ in South Atlantic, Times, 2 April 2010
v Bernard Ingham, a former Guardian journalist, claimed that he persuaded the navy to allow 29 journalists to travel with the task force. Originally they had wanted none. Ingham reports (1991: 285): ‘Max Hastings, then on the Evening Standard, seemed near to tears at the thought of being prevented from covering a war.’

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• Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism and Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, Lincoln University
Thu Jan 19, 2012 11:18 am
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