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Suppress the press


When the Falklands War was fought between Britain and Argentina 35 years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was heavily criticised for its serious – many would say unacceptable – restrictions on coverage of the fighting by what are now known as ‘the media’.

Opinion in the UK was deeply divided as to whether the war should have been fought at all. The status of the Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as las Islas Malvinas) was, and is, disputed. Not that Argentina has any more historical claim to the islands than Britain. It seems they were uninhabited when Europeans arrived there in the mid-18th century: first the French, then a year later the British (who were apparently unaware of the small French settlement on a different island), and five years after that the Spaniards, who at the time still ruled most of South America (the nearest major land mass, nearly 500 km away), and believed they therefore had a ‘natural’ right to the islands. But as the American Revolution loomed in the mid-1770s, Britain decided to withdraw its forces from several overseas territories, and by 1780 Spain had resumed control.

But Spain, weakened in the early 19th century by the Peninsular War, soon found its own  New World colonies rising in revolt, and in 1816 Argentina declared its independence (eight more Spanish colonies did so around the same time, and more were to follow, reducing Spain almost overnight to a minor power). Both Britain and Spain had left plaques on the islands officially proclaiming their respective sovereignties, but for nearly two decades it was not clear who was really in charge of them. Then in 1833 the British reimposed their rule by force of arms; and that is how things remained for the next 150 years.

In those days the British Empire still occupied a quarter of the surface of the globe, and there was nothing remarkable about Britain having such remote possessions (over 12,000 km away – the circumference of the world is 40,000 km). But by 1982 most of the former empire had been granted independence, and the Falklands were an anomaly. With a surface area of 12,000 kmthey were by far the largest of the UK’s few remaining overseas territories, but their population – just 3,000 – made them one of the very smallest.

Over the years the Argentinians had made diplomatic noises about Britain ‘illegally occupying’ land that was ‘rightfully’ theirs; but they had never physically asserted that claim, except in a few unofficial stunts such as the hijacking of an Argentinian airliner that was forced to land on the islands. The United Nations Decolonisation Committee had put the Falklands on its list of (currently 17) ‘non-self-governing countries’ back in the 1960s, and in vain urged Britain to grant them independence; however, this did not make Argentina any more entitled to occupy them, as they would then have simply become a colony of another country. What was more, the local population spoke English and considered themselves British; and they still do. In a referendum held in 2013, with a whopping 92% turnout, precisely three people voted against the islands remaining British (you wonder how they dared); and whatever Argentina might like to think, this was surely not the result of coercion or intimidation. Nor is Argentina’s claim to the Falklands under ‘natural law’ justified by history, since Spain had only occupied them for 25 years when Argentina became independent, and Britain had occupied them (if only briefly) before that.

On the self-determination principle, the Falklands should surely remain British, since that is quite clearly what everyone there wants. If anything, they are ‘more British than the British’.

In 1982, however, General Galtieri’s vicious Argentinian regime was starting to totter; and a war to ‘reconquer’ the ‘Malvinas’ seemed to him a good way to unite his people in a wave of jingoism that would distract attention from economic and human rights problems at home. Faulty UK intelligence allowed Argentinian forces to occupy the islands unopposed, presenting the Thatcher government with a no less welcome opportunity to distract attention from economic problems at home by uniting people in a wave of jingoism. Without even attempting to tackle the problem by non-violent means, she mustered a naval ‘task force’ that would sail the full length of the Atlantic to deliver troops who would rescue the islanders from the unwanted invaders.

The ploy worked in both countries – but more so in Britain, since the Thatcher government had been duly elected and enjoyed genuine popular support in many quarters, whereas the Galtieri government was an increasingly hated dictatorship. British opposition to the war, on the other hand, was based on a number of considerations: however justified, the war was an embarrassing echo of 19th-century British ‘gunboat diplomacy’ that no longer had any place in the modern world; it seemed a vast waste of resources to spend nearly £3 billion, with the loss of 255 British and at least 650 Argentinian lives, 6 British warships and 35 British aircraft, just to protect ‘3,000 people and half a million sheep’; these remote islands would remain permanently vulnerable to attack, and in need of costly defence; resettling the Falklanders, even at great expense, would be far less costly and would eliminate an abiding political problem once and for all; and the presence of a British colony at the other end of the world in waters claimed by Argentina made little sense in a now largely decolonialised world, and merely enhanced Britain’s negative image abroad as a country that had never got over the loss of its empire and was trying to fight the battles of the past as though it were still a major power. In this case Britain could not even pose as a valiant David against a mighty Goliath, as it could in the Second World War – for, although Argentina’s armed forces were able to use state-of-the-art armaments (some of which had recently been sold to them by Thatcher’s own commercially minded government), they were clearly no match for the British. It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – though in the upshot it took Britain two months to put an end to the occupation of the Falklands.

The UK press split along fairly predictable right- and left-wing lines. The jingoistic Sun and Daily Express firmly supported ‘our boys’, crudely mocking anyone who for any reason opposed the war, depicting Argentina and its people as comical and cowardly, with epithets to match (‘Johnny Gaucho’, ‘the Argies’, ‘don’t cry for me, Argentina, we’re going to nuke you’ and more of the same), and called on ‘true Brits’ to boycott Argentinian products such as tinned corned beef and buy Uruguayan Fray Bentos instead (even though the factory there had been closed down three years earlier, and most South American countries supported Argentina anyway). When Ireland proposed diplomatic mediation, the Sun instantly called for a boycott of Irish butter in British supermarkets and urged its readers not to holiday that summer in Ireland (‘our new enemy’).

The Guardian and the Daily Mirror took a less one-sided view; and, faithful to its long-standing principles of even-handedness, so did the BBC. The broadcaster spoke in its reports of ‘the British’ and ‘the Argentinians’ (rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, still less ‘the enemy’), quoted Argentinian sources, and described the mood of people in Buenos Aires as well as London. This earned it the open scorn and disapproval of not only the jingoistic right-wing press but also the Thatcher government, which condemned it – along with then highly pacifist Labour Party – as unpatriotic simply for opposing the war.

This pattern of identifying support for a particular party’s policies or leaders with support for the nation, and treating opposition to them as tantamount to treason, is now starting to become familiar – Trump, Putin and Erdoğan immediately spring to mind, along with George W. Bush’s notorious statement ‘if you aren’t for us, you’re against us’. But back in 1982 it was new; and the whole phenomenon gave rise to much critical commentary, including Robert Harris’s small but excellent book Gotcha! The title reproduced one of the Sun‘s uglier headlines at the height of the war, and it described how the Thatcher government and the UK military had done their level best to stifle the free press that the right-wing has always claimed to support as a pillar of capitalist democracy (I make no apologies for the contradiction in terms). In fact, as we should all know from experience, it is right-wing governments that are instinctively hostile to a free press; and the Falklands War made that only too clear. There was even talk of introducing legislation to make the BBC more ‘obedient’ to the government of the day – at least if it was Conservative.

Gotcha! quoted a journalist who made the key distinction between the role of the media when a country is engaged in ‘total war’ with an enemy that is bent on destroying the national system of government and reducing its people to subservience, and its role when that is not the case. The Falklands War, he said, was quite clearly not ‘total war’, for the British homeland was never at risk – nor was Britain out to conquer Argentina or oppress its people. Since Britain would one day be negotiating with the Argentinians, said the journalist, we needed to understand them; and only free and fair reporting could help us do so. I had never seen this distinction made before; but it made perfect sense to me, and still does.

Which is why a report this weekend about a Conservative politician who was interviewed on the BBC strikes me as alarming. Her name is Andrea Leadsom; and it should not be forgotten in what follows that she came close to winning the Conservative party leadership after David Cameron’s resignation last year, and so might now be running the British government. We should all be relieved that she withdrew at the last moment, fearing she lacked the necessary backing – even if that left the door open for Theresa May.

Leadsom has a number of very nasty ideas which she has not hesitated to proclaim. Bear in mind that she boasts of being a committed Christian, and of being guided by her faith in everything she does.

First, she thinks men should never be employed in child care, for they ‘might be paedophiles’, and ‘paedophiles seek work that brings them into contact with children’. While the latter is undoubtedly true, the idea that only men are paedophiles, and the implication that all men are potential paedophiles, is damagingly ignorant and absurd. For that matter, I’d sooner the likes of Andrea Leadsom were kept well clear of children.

But she has children of her own; and, despite vigorous claims that she’d been misquoted in a newspaper interview during the Conservative leadership race (which were subsequently refuted by tape recordings), she made this a key argument in her campaign. Theresa May and her husband have no children – something Leadsom was sure must make her opponent feel ‘very, very sad’ (although in the same breath she said she didn’t know her at all well). Whatever May’s reasons for being childless, Leadsom had the gall to claim that the mere fact of being ‘a mum’ automatically meant she was more suited to be the party leader, and hence the prime minister, for it gave her a ‘greater stake in the future’. She went on to say she had children ‘who would also have children’. Is she sure they will, or is she just taking it for granted – and in any case who cares? Yet she accused the Times of ‘disgusting gutter journalism’ for accurately quoting what she had said.

But now Brexit – and this brings us back to the Falklands War, and Thatcher’s treatment of the media back in 1982. Unlike May, Leadsom – and here at least she scores points for consistency – has always been pro-Brexit; and in the recent interview she said she wished broadcasters could be ‘a bit more patriotic’ in their reports on the topic. The interviewer had been asking her some awkward questions about where exactly the Conservative party stood in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, which have just got started; and Leadsom essentially replied that it was the media’s duty to toe the party line, rather than report freely and fairly. The British people had chosen to leave the EU, and the media should respect that by toning down any questions or criticism, in the interests of ‘patriotism’. Remember that only 52% voted for Brexit, whereas the other 48% were firmly opposed to it. But, in Leadsom’s mind, opposing her party’s policy pretty well makes you a traitor.

Trump, Putin, Erdoğan and now Leadsom. At least in Britain people have had a narrow escape – at least for now.


From → Books, History, Media, Politics

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