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Road to War. The Argentines had a public information plan and a psychological action plan for this war. Both plans are still classified and are still inaccessible. The British, on the other hand, winged their public affairs efforts. Except for the British Official Secrets Act, facilitated by a D-Notice Committee, there were no official British public affairs guidelines or directives to help the news management efforts of this war at the outset. There was a PAO plan on the shelves, a draft originated by the army in 1977, but it was discovered far too late to be of any help, at least for this war. It's not surprising that the MOD didn't have public affairs plans, knowing as we do now that they didn't have operational plans for anything outside of a Nato
The Argentines were prepared and so ever increasingly confident of their position that they even announced publicly their imminent invasion. On 24 January 1982, General Galtieri promised in a La Prensa article to possess the Malvinas before 3 January 1983, before the British and Falklanders could celebrate the 150th anniversary of the British settlement. Even certain members of the Argentine Embassy in the United States held no reservations, over cocktails or private dinner parties, about early advertisement of their government's intentions.
One month later, on the 24th of February, the British press warned of suspicious Argentine movements. Had the British become so complacent that they could mark these forthright warnings as only dictatorial rhetoric? It certainly seems that senior Foreign Office and MOD officials were satisfied with that explanation though they could read otherwise in their daily newspapers and in similar warnings from their embassy in Argentina. The British government made a fateful decision. At every turn they simply seemed to say to Argentina, “Come ahead and have your pleasure. We're not really interested in coming to a conclusion on our negotiations for the islands; we're not interested in defending them either since we're getting ready to scrap our only vessel there, the Endurance, plus some of our amphibs here, and we're selling our ASW carrier Invincible to Australia." With that kind of response to their warnings, the Argentines felt pretty comfortable about recouping what they saw as rightfully theirs.
So it was with that set of preliminaries that the Argentine occupation of the Falkland Islands took the British public by surprise. Yet, in spite of Britain's perceived indifference indicated to Argentina, the Falkland invasion was seen by the British public as an affront to British sovereignty and national pride that could not be ignored.
The British Performance
rime Minister Thatcher had stronger public opinion behind her than
Churchill, who in 1940 rallied his public in their country's greatest danger. A
large majority of Parliament, most of the public, and the news organizations enthusiastically supported their government's determination to use force if a settlement couldn't be negotiated. A public opinion poll showed 83 percent in favor of regaining the Falklands and 53 percen preferred the use of force. The latter percentage was to increase as negotiations faltered. The Times of London had a clear vision of what was necessary when, on 8 April it editorialized that: "In strategy one must disregard the method by which the decision is reached and consider only the outcome that is desired. That outcome is to force our adversary to accept certain terms which must be imposed on him and which, at present, he says are unacceptable. In the dialectic of wills the decision can be achieved not just through a clash of arms but psychologically....
The day before, another British daily, The Guardian, said, “ . . . we must be sure that British opinion is prepared-through the waves of fervour-for a solution that meets the needs of the Falklanders." These editorial comments thus reflected the majority and indicated, at least here in postmortem, a willingness by these news organizations to do their part to win the war. Could the MOD afford to look so closely in the mouth of this seeming gift horse?
Good Policy, Bad Technique. Margaret Thatcher rose to her country's crisis openly and with honest explanation to her constituents. She bore the Parliamentary brunt of hard questions about lack of advance warning or preparation. She did not deceive or manipulate. It was she who insisted that to allow only six journalists to embark with her Falklands fleet was not enough. More had to be allowed to go. In the end, 29 journalists, technicians, and photographers sailed with the fleet. Her principle was right—allow coverage of the British side of the war. Her initiation of that principle was right-send journalists to tell the story. It was the inadequacy and the lack of a technique in managing the journalists, that harmed her government's public information effort.
Two principles-the public's right to information and the duty to withhold information for operational security-were the government's basis for information policy. They are not, nor do they have to be, diametrically opposite, in theory at least. But in actual practice they can easily conflict. The concept of operational security can be justified too loosely with such a response as, "that's an operational matter," particularly if the information being referred to is uncomplimentary to the person or unit or circumstance being discussed. If that happens, then the news media, writing for public consumption, will lose confidence and respect for the government or military spokesmen reflecting that attitude.
The other consideration, however, is the possibility of the news media becoming too cavalier with sensitive information because of naiveté,
“What I have said throughout to that kind of question is that
British MOD Spokesman
pressures of deadlines, self-righteousness, or political bias. At that point a government might lose any willingness to release even nonsensitive information. Where exactly the balance could be found, came out in Parliamentary investigation as one of the major difficulties involved in formulating information policy. There is some wisdom to be gained from the dilemma. It is vital that no government seeks, in its urgent need to prosecute a war successfully, to insulate itself from the process of public accountability.
What then should be reported by a government in war? The basic aims of an information policy should be: to provide as full an account as possible of the course of the conflict that is consistent with operational security; to retain the credibility of the government's or military's spokesmen; and to explain the government's case at home and to the international public. In the early stages of the Falklands war, the emphasis was on diplomatic activity, with the military preparations as part of the psychological pressure to achieve diplomatic settlement. At this point it was important for the government to show the resolve and capacity to win militarily, if necessary. When diplomacy failed and fighting started, the aim had to be to release information as quickly and as accurately as possible consistent with the safety and security of the task force.
Was it the MOD's policy always to tell the truth or did they indulge in misinformation in order to deceive the enemy? MOD representatives have freely admitted, and without apology, that they did not always tell the whole truth. They were unwilling though to admit that, on occasion, they deliberately misled the news media in order to deceive the Argentines.
The Ministry of Defence public information policy for this war, according to its Permanent Undersecretary, Sir Frank Cooper, was based on the assumption that "the public has both an interest in and a right to know about defence. But we do not regard these rights as unlimited."
Force commanders were specifically instructed "not to interfere with the style and content of press copy other than on security grounds," while news editors back home were "exceptionally cooperative" in responding to requests from MOD public relations personnel to remove certain references in stories in order to safeguard morale or to minimize distress to next of kin. Whether such an arrangement would be sufficient in a war in which
Public Affairs in the South Atlantic War 61
"instant" television coverage was possible, or in which the scope of the operation was more general, is dubious. What is a commander or a public affairs officer to do about it?
One journalist testifying before a Parliamentary investigating committee noted in this regard that he did not know of any British correspondent who had ever slanted a battle report or knowingly put troops' lives at risk. But, the journalist added, Mao Zedong was only 75 percent right when he said, "Power comes from the barrel of a gun." In an age of near-instant communication, power also bounces down a beam from a communications satellite and goes to the side which tells the story first. The Israelis are masters at this. While they use strict censorship, their military press officers are not usually obstructive and have the sense to make sure that reporters' copy gets out with all possible speed and that correspondents are given every possible assistance in the field. To a lesser degree, even rag-clad guerrillas are aware of the power of communication.
It was in that censorship or vetting process that the British gained some experience from which we can learn. During the Falklands war, there appeared to be no clear guidelines for censoring or vetting news reports. What the "minders" or censors with the task force and in London did, was something in between censoring and vetting, in that they appraised the correspondents' copy and asked them to remove or rewrite certain passages. The trouble was they didn't do it within a consistent format. Some of it was even ludicrous. As an example, in the pooled copy after the Sir Galahad was hit, there was a reference to a young guardsman, 20-year-old Stephen Dobbin. The reporter quoted him as saying, minutes after the attack, “Just tell my mum I'm safe, and keep your chin up. We'll get the bastards next time." The details of Guardsman Dobbin were bracketed by an MOD censor in London, who pointed out in brackets at the end of the dispatch: [The next of kin of Stephen Dobbin have not yet been informed, therefore we would appreciate his name not being mentioned.]
With the heavy-handedness of Sir Frank's organization in censoring journalistic and photographic products from the fleet, and the force commanders' difficulty in managing the news correspondents in their efforts, it is not surprising that not a single picture was taken of the Argentine surrender. Few people at the Ministry of Defence seemed to appreciate that news management is more than just information security censorship. It also means providing pictures.
The British Commander of the Land Forces, Major General Jeremy Moore, explained that he was being cautious with the negotiation process because of the uncertainty of the situation. The Argentine commander of the Falklands, General Mario Menendez, he explained, was not getting a clear agreement from his government to surrender on behalf of all Argentine forces. Moore added that, in his opinion, it would have been unsafe to allow
Naval War College Review
any possible distraction to endanger the agreement to surrender. In fact, two military photographers were in the building where the negotiations took place, waiting for the opportunity to document the surrender visually. But, in light of his guidance from London, the approach to publicity adopted by Moore was to secure the surrender as the highest priority and so avoid further loss of life. It is certainly conceivable that Menendez asked Moore not to allow photography of the negotiations or of the instrument signing. It is obvious that the omission of photographers was a deliberate move by Moore rather than an oversight. The point is that Britain was caught in another Argentine psychological ploy, as Argentina still argues to this day that they did not capitulate. Where the general public might not understand the subtle nuances of statesmanship, they certainly understand a simple picture.
On the day the Sheffield was fatally hit by an Argentine air-launched Exocet missile, the embarked journalists were told that the story had been embargoed by CinC Fleet in England. Similarly, the story of two Harriers colliding in fog was held up by the civilian censors with the task force, but the details of these and other similar incidents were released in London-causing a great deal of frustration for the reporters at sea. Their concern was not so much that their copy was being, vetted for security purposes but that it was not getting to their home offices on time, if at all, and that the apparent lack of coordination between PAO personnel at sea and in London would keep these writers from their mutually agreed upon and appointed task.
So there was a serious information problem with the MOD. It arose not through any Machiavellian desire to mislead the news media or the public constantly, but through sheer incompetence at times and most often through naiveté.
One must say in defense of the PAO effort at sea, for instance—that, although it was not possible to respond to all of the demands of the journalists, during the course of the operation over 600 dispatches and 50 hours of broadcasting tapes were sent back home by the embarked correspondents. Written copy alone amounted to over half a million words. The five reporters in the Invincible alone provided between 25 and 30 percent of the daily workload for the ship's communications center. At one stage it had a backlog of over 1,000 messages for transmission, but the Invincible correspondents were still able to send over 4,000 words of copy a day.
News Media Reaction. The government and MOD fared pretty well in spite of themselves. The conservative press was uniformly supportive of the government throughout the war. Much of the independent press also generally supported the government, in spite of hard warnings to the Prime Minister to pursue every effort to secure a negotiated settlement and continued warnings of the costs of military action. Even the liberal press was surprisingly supportive of the need to back up negotiations with a show of force.