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Public Affairs in the South Atlantic War 63

There are charges and countercharges of censorship and irresponsibility, jingoism and bias. The evidence reinforces many of the popular prejudices of both the military and the news media about each other, particularly in times of stress. For the most part, the news representatives felt that the Ministry of Defence had a terrible war as far as public information management was concerned. However, there were some who would disagree. They are the ones who made the best of a tough situation and were able to write good stories and get them home.

The British news people reporting this war, whether at sea or in England, were, for the most part, generally unhappy with the arrangements made by the MOD for information matters. Specific complaints ranged from the inadequacy of the number of places for journalists to accompany the task force and the allocation of those places that were available, to the inconsistent censoring procedures used and the irregularity of briefings in London about the progress of the campaign. It was also argued that the lack of briefings contributed to the flood of speculative stories in the news. The first points can be chalked off to lack of planning by both parties, and frequently to a juvenile attitude by reporters, publishers, and TV executives who are too often used to getting their way. But the latter point, regarding briefings, deserves some more discussion because it is a problem at sea and ashore, and is an everyday problem, or consideration, for those who need or want to explain their story.

One of the most obviously mistaken decisions of the Ministry of Defence was to cease background briefings between the time of departure of the task force and 11 May by which time the naval campaign was well along. It is essential that a government and its military branch give regular briefings to representatives of all news organizations, as practicable, in order to sustain a relationship of trust, to foster the flow of correct information, and to halt faulty speculation. That is basic and essential to the success of any public affairs activity.

Reporters and their bosses do not like to think of themselves, or be thought of, as simply mouthpieces of government, or any other organization for that matter, except on their editorial pages. Most of them believe that their main responsibility is to provide the public with as complete and accurate an account as possible of any conflict in both its military and political aspects. In order to do that, they take advantage of all possible sources of information, official and unofficial, from home and overseas. News organizations are also very competitive and that creates a demand for dramatic and immediate news, which can interfere with the requirements of balance and impartiality, as well as those of completeness and accuracy.

When the MOD wouldn't provide the information, it is not surprising then, that television and the papers began using retired military officers to help them report what was probably going on in the Falklands. Nor is it

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surprising that, during the first half of the war, British media were reporting information supplied by the Argentines. The problem is, most news organizations are businesses, and without capital in-flow, they cease to exist. So it is their goal to maintain and nurture their audience or readership. In order to do that, they must have a story—a story that beats their competition. If a government, or a military organization, or any group for that matter, understands that line, then they will know why it is vital to tell their story first, before their competition or enemy tells his.

Reaction in the MOD. In a democracy where everybody may have his say, there are bound to be dissenting voices. Dissent did not dissipate the national will during Britain's fight to regain the Falkland Islands; but it was a war won without consistent, even-handed, professional information services of the Ministry of Defence. The evidence I've seen indicates overwhelmingly that the lack of an experienced professional public relations officer at the head of the MOD public relations chain was widely felt in the news management of this war. This crisis made it abundantly clear that the Royal Navy and the British MOD need a public affairs plan for contingencies or for anything other than routine operations. Since the war the MOD has contracted with University College Cardiff to review the public relations problems of the Falklands war and develop a plan for them. It would be foolish for plans, which incorporate the news media into the organization for war, to be too firmly tied to a particular environment, but it is clear that information matters are an intrinsic part of war and should, therefore, form part of the planning for war.

The Falklands war drove the point home to military seniors that a far greater understanding of the nature of news work is necessary within the armed services. News media studies should form an integral part of higher defense training. To that end, the incorporation of a public affairs element in exercises would be of great value to the military, particularly the Royal Navy, and the news media.

The Ministry of Defence believed they had "got it about right" and were generally pleased with the outcome. That's the official line. Unofficially, the attitude is that they were very unhappy about having had to take so many journalists to sea, embarrassed about their own lack of planning and inability to manage the press, and displeased with the low priority the press was given in the operation-particularly as regards communications, transportation, and other simple logistics.

Perhaps the military commanders' most noteworthy objection to the flow of information to the public was over the release too soon or of too much operational information that could jeopardize both the lives of fighting men and the success of their efforts. It also bothered the relatives and friends of those sailors, marines, and soldiers who were fighting for the Falklands. The

Public Affairs in the South Atlantic War 65

Parachute Regiment was incensed over a premature BBC report which said they were attacking Goose Green, an attack that, when it took place shortly afterwards, cost many lives including the battalion commander's. But that was a fault of the government in releasing the information, not of the broadcaster who took its release at face value. One flag officer said that the Navy's biggest concern in this regard was the reports released back home that Argentine air-dropped bombs were not exploding on impact with the British ships. Though the problem of publicizing operational information was discussed with London, he said it wasn't corrected.

While the task force commanders had absolute control of the mechanics of the information flow from the South Atlantic, they had no control and little, if any, influence over the information flow back home. Probably never again will the Ministry of Defence, or the defense department of any other democratic nation, be able to control all means of transportation to the scene of fighting and the sole means of communications both for copy and pictures. Knowing that makes it all the more important that plans should include criteria for incorporating the news media into the organization for war. It would be prudent to base those plans on principles agreed to by both parties—the news media and the military—taking into account the variety of operational circumstances which might arise.

If the presence of the news media in a crisis or a war is accepted as inevitable, one consequence must be to inform those media about the facilities that will and will not, be available to them. The frustrations the correspondents suffered in their efforts to report this war were occasionally directed at the military men they worked with, whose highest priority and principal efforts were directed toward the successful prosecution of the war and who were often neglectful of the needs of the news correspondents. And so it will be in any conflict that the operators have their jobs to do, and with a narrow focus, see the news media as an obstruction. The wider focus, however, must never be forgotten, that the news media can be a useful tool, or even a weapon, in prosecuting a war psychologically, so that the operators don't have to use their more severe weapons.

In its concluding remarks, the House of Commons Defence Committee investigating information problems in this war, summed up the problem nicely. That report says operational commanders must have a determination to win, but those concerned with the higher direction of operations need a wider grasp of the political and psychological elements of national security policy. Pursuit of short-term military advantage without regard to world opinion could be fatal militarily, as well as politically.

The Argentine Performance

In The Argentine

n Buenos Aires the problems of public information were handled

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staff (Estado Mayor Conjunto) had the exclusive responsibility for releasing information about the war to the news media. In some cases the joint staff tried to apply objectivity; however, in most of their official communiques it is clear that their intention was to influence public opinion. The junta, through the joint staff, used misinformation to the point of sophism, or disinformation.

Voices of Government. The joint staff had its press releases organized in accordance with a still classified plan, according to a ranking governmental source in Argentina. Though the plan was designed to avoid any releases from nonofficial or nonjoint staff sources, spokesmen who were frequently perceived by the public to be officially sanctioned, committed gross acts of speculation and disinformation. These perceived government spokesmen were on the periphery of the junta in the form of unattributed “military sources." Most often they were government-owned and operated TV stations or governmentinfluenced publications, which often profess government policies. The local publications sometimes created their own stories as if they were trying to outdo the government. An American television news producer who was in Argentina for the duration of the war described, in a recent interview with me, the reality of news organizations operating under an authoritarian regime. "It was remarkable for some of us who were a bit naive about how government-run media in other parts of the world can be part of the same ball game. It's as if they're out there with the flags in the first row, screaming and yelling the lies as much as anybody else would. And that's why they're there. That's how you become an editor or publisher of a big important newspaper or magazine in Argentina. It is because you know the party line better than the people who are the party."

Reporters for Argentina's leading publications regularly complained to their foreign peers during the war that their publishers told them how to orient their stories politically. During the war, Gente, a leading glossy weekly, ran a two-page interview with an Argentine commando allegedly contacted by radio behind the British lines on South Georgia Island. It was designed to spark public ardor for the war and for the boys at the front. As it turned out, the article was completely fabricated at the order of an editor. Even though that sort of incident was not directed by the junta, it certainly worked nicely into their psychological efforts. Psychological action was one of the principles guiding the junta's domestic affairs. They started by preparing their public for war, not negotiations, and not just any war but a short one. The Argentine public affairs objectives were to whip up patriotic fervor for the war, to push for Latin American solidarity, and to show that Britain was the aggressor and Argentina the victim. Additionally, an Argentine government source says that yet another aim was to attempt to reduce animosity against the United States. It has been difficult to find evidence of that during the war.

Public Affairs in the South Atlantic War 67

Managing the Information. Unofficial sources of information were not the only origins of disinformation. One only need look at the official joint staff communiques to see an amazing level of sophism. While reportage and communique analysis is the subject of another detailed study, it is clear that the Argentines repeatedly understated their losses and overstated the damage inflicted on the British.

Some experts on Argentina might say that was the result of bureaucratic mistakes indicative of the regime there. A neophite might not excuse a government for such repeated misstatements and simply call it lying. What I can say for sure is that before the end of May, the Argentine joint staff had claimed that their forces shot down more Harriers than the British owned. Moreover, if we are to believe central and peripheral Argentine government sources, the HMS Invincible was sunk five times during the war. Unfortunately, I could find no record of the Argentine public's response at the time to those misstatements. In spite of these examples and the Argentine public's negative postwar response to the junta's triumphalism, the joint staff claims that their public affairs and psychological action plans "worked fine, with some exceptions and lack of control."

Between 2 April and 21 June the joint staff released 170 communiques, a rate of more than two per day, regarding the government's policies and the situation in the battle zone. One communique assured the public that the information coming in to the staff for release would be "evaluated in volume as well as content to avoid inaccuracies and the creation of false expectations." If no information was released, according to their policy, then the public should rest assured that there was no important news to announce. Nonetheless there was a constant stream of information available from the Argentine side, particularly between the time of their invasion on 2 April, and the British buildup to the San Carlos landing on 21 May. There is no doubt that the speed with which Argentina released information was at times embarrassing to the British government. These embarrassments have been described by the BBC director, for example, as "a self inflicted wound.”

The publicized governmental policy that guided news organizations reporting from Buenos Aires during this war was self-censorship, “so that press censorship and other restrictions would not be necessary." If there was a chance that reports "could damage the morale of the nation, then they should be avoided." The guidance to journalists said that "news agencies and/or correspondents accredited in the country will be responsible for the control of all information that originates in the country or coming from abroad which is transmitted or retransmitted either abroad or to national correspondents." Is this a policy we should admire? A recent Louis Harris poll shows that nine out of ten Americans feel that news media in this country should follow that policy, although the poll was not taken in the context of the subject of Argentina or the Falklands war.

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