Friday, 20 April 2012

The Falklands Conflict: Jingoism, Censorship and the Media

Max Hastings described the Falklands War as “a freak of history, almost certainly the last colonial war that Britain will ever fight.”  The conflict was complicated by the fact that it took place at the height of the cold war.  The British government, preoccupied with the Soviet Union, had reduced the size of the Royal Navy, reconfiguring it as a mainly submarine force concentrated in the Northern Atlantic.

Although this was a territorial dispute, military conflict was far from inevitable.  The cause of the war had more to do with diplomatic misunderstanding and bureaucratic ineptitude than anything else.  Almost everyone in Britain was utterly unprepared for this war.  The media, the government, as well as the public were caught by surprise when the Argentineans invaded Port Stanley.

There has always been suspicion between soldiers and war reporters, and mistrust was very evident during this conflict.  These suspicions were intensified by the isolated nature of the battlefield, which meant that the British government was able to control access to the warzone and reports from it.  There was to be no foreign observer.  No journalist deemed by the MOD to be unsympathetic or independently minded.

Robert Harris claimed that the Falklands Conflict was the worst reported British war, since the Crimea in 1854.  It was characterised by poor communications as copy had to be sent by ‘ships radio’, which was only permitted when the navy was not using the system.  It took three weeks for television film to get back to the UK, and it was then vetted by a MOD censor.  This meant that no pictures of the land fighting phase or images of injured British soldiers were seen by the public until after the ceasefire.

The MOD’s control of information enabled the military to operate an effective propaganda regime during the fighting.  The journalists on the scene were unable to report objectively because of the censorship and denial of information.  This was compounded by an editorial policy in much of the UK press which was largely gung ho and non-dissenting.  Indeed, for the Sun, it was no longer acceptable to express any criticism for either the Conflict or the Government’s handling of it.  They lambasted Peter Snow and the Guardian, but their greatest venom was saved for the Mirror, who were accused of treason, and appeasing the Argentine dictators.

Perhaps one of the more significant consequences of the Falklands War was that it changed the style and manner that the British press would report their county’s wars in future.  This change was instigated by the Sun’s patriotic jingoism and sloganeering headlines, exemplified by the infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline to report the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano.  The Sun covered the war as if it was a video game or a comic strip, and as such, the jubilant and crass ‘Gotcha’ was their logical response.  The Sun’s reporting had come to represent a fantasy war, where plucky little Britain was fighting an Argentine super villain.

The ‘Gotcha’ headline appalled most media commentators, as well as many of the British troops, who believed the Argentine soldiers were fighting a fair war, and should therefore deserve respect.  They knew that it could be themselves who drowned tomorrow.  A message was sent from the Canberra troop carrier to the Sun’s offices, asking for a hundred copies of that day’s newspaper.  They added that they had run out of toilet paper.  Private Eye satirised the Sun’s jingoism with the mock headline “Kill an Argie: Win a Metro!” to which the Sun's editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, responded by saying: “Why didn’t we think of that?”

The viciousness of the Sun during the Falklands can be seen as part of wider social and political change in Britain, of a new Conservatism, based on a muscular economic model and distain of the liberal intelligentsia.  As the chief cheerleader for this ‘new order’, the Sun was eager to portray its opponents as unpatriotic or treacherous, consequently suffocating their expressive creativity in the public sphere.  The legacy of this attitude towards debate during a time of war has resulted in a media who tend to uncritically identify with ‘our boys’ and report military action in a sensationalist, populist and simplistic way.

It has been widely assumed that it was bureaucratic errors which led to the MOD failing to give the public truthful facts during the fighting.  However, the Falklands Conflict will be remembered as a classic example of how a government and military can control news during a war.  During the fighting the British government suppressed information and used the Official Secrets Act to ensure that editors complied with censorship.  The MOD gave its own daily briefing in an attempt to circumnavigate the free media to take control of the news agenda.

The Falklands Conflict was a pivotal event in war reporting.  In subsequent Western wars, if possible, correspondents would not be able to operate as independent and free witnesses to events.  The model that the MOD applied:  Controlling access to the battlefield; the exclusion of neutral or unfavourable observers; vetting of journalists and censorship of their copy; military manipulation of the news to generate patriotism; branding those who question the official version of events as traitors.  These are now the standard military conditions that journalists must submit to report from a war zone.

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