Magazine article The Spectator

Did I Help Sink the Belgrano?

Magazine article The Spectator

Did I Help Sink the Belgrano?

Article excerpt

PURELY by chance, I was involved in one example of General Pinochet's co-operation with Britain during the 1982 Falklands war. As a BBC reporter I was sitting in my room in the Cabo de Hornos Hotel in the port of Punta Arenas in southern Chile when the telephone rang. It was a military contact I had made on arriving in the city and he wanted me to come round to his office, he couldn't explain why on the telephone. The military under General Pinochet controlled every region of Chile at the time and for those of us attempting to cover the Falklands conflict from the nearest non-Argentine point it was useful to have friendly contact amongst them. Apart from anything else, we needed their permission to fly anywhere near the border with Argentina, which was just across the Magellan Strait on the island of Tierra del Fuego.

My contact was a charming, well-educated man who spoke perfect English. He knew the British services well and, like so many Chileans, he was keenly Anglophile. The local consul had an English surname and a young farmer I became friendly with was half-Scottish. They all had one thing in common: they disliked the Argentinians. At the time Chile was almost on a war footing with its neighbour over disputed islands at the mouth of the Beagle Channel; the border with Argentina runs down the centre of the waterway. The Chilean government was more than happy to help Britain, allowing aircraft to fly from its shores and use its air bases.

When I arrived to see my contact, who must remain anonymous, I was shown in to his office. He passed me a piece of lined paper from a notebook which I still have. At the top he had written in blue ink: `Al.' And below:

1 heavy unit, 2 light units. 13-1400 Zulu time. Lat 54 00S, Long 65 40W. Steering evasive course 335o,18 knots.

`Can you pass it to your people?' he asked as I read it. `The BBC.' I replied. He smiled, `No, your government.' I realised that as a member of the military regime he assumed I worked for the British government, that everyone employed by the BBC must be a spy. I explained that I did not work for the government and never had done, but he merely insisted that I pass it on.

`What does it mean?' I asked rereading the note. 'I can't tell you but your government will know,' he said. `It's important.' I agreed to pass it on and as I walked the short distance back to the hotel I wondered what on earth the note meant and to whom it should be given. It was obviously a shipping movement and location, but of what? I had travelled from South Africa to Central America via Nicaragua, Panama and Brazil and was covering the war and elections in El Salvador when the Falklands crisis blew up. I had gone straight from Salvador to Punta Arenas and had not had time to familiarise myself completely with Argentina's military capability or deployment. I was also in a dilemma. Was I compromising my independence and objectivity as a journalist by helping out here? After all, we are not supposed to work for any government, including our own. Then I decided that I was not `working' for the government at all, merely acting as a conduit. And as the British armed forces were one of the few remaining institutions that I wholeheartedly admired, it would have been absurd to have refused to do something that might help our own forces against an evil regime such as General Galtieri's. Anyway, although I had to remain impartial as a broadcaster, as a citizen I had no doubt whose side I was on in this war: Britain's. …

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