Propaganda Became News When British Troops Sailed off to War and Thatcher Ruled the Airwaves; Argentina Invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982 and for the Next 10 Weeks the Falkland's 1,800 Inhabitants, and the British Forces, Found Themselves the Focus of the World's Attention. John Jewell Investigates the Thatcher Government's Relationship with the Media during That Time
Byline: John Jewell
AS SOON as intelligence was received concerning the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Margaret Thatcher, as the first war Prime Minister of the television era, set out to control the flow of information.
As the Task Force was dispatched from Portsmouth amid patriotic flag-waving, military bands and the watchful S eye of the world's media, her mission was to recapture the Falklands and re-establish British sovereignty.
Opinion polls indicated that 78% of the British public supported such actions.
It was government belief that the media should suspend objective reporting and newsgathering and embrace the British cause without question.
It did everything in its power to ensure that no information during the conflict - no information at all - was released to the British public without its approval.
As a result we are able to say that in 1982, despite the birth of satellite technology and the ability to broadcast live from the battlefield, we saw the most poorly reported conflict since the Crimean war of 1854-1856.
Indeed, the Falklands war was in many ways a war of a different era - no British television pictures for 54 of the 74 days the conflict lasted.
In terms of those journalists who travelled with the task force, the government was able to exclude any independent or foreign journalist from travelling the 8,000 miles, allowing only carefully selected teams from Britain to make the journey - as long as they conformed to the strictest censorship and as long as, crucially, they were not war reporters.
So the 28 reporters who travelled with the task force were a hastily assembled, inexperienced bunch travelling around the world with an uncooperative navy.
The rules of censorship applied by the Ministry of Defence were strict and prohibitive.
There was to be no mention of military intentions, the capability of weapons or even the weather conditions that may prevail.
It is worth noting, too, that the American news agencies put no credence whatsoever in what was reported from the task force - viewing all missives as little more than outright propaganda.
It was certainly true that the British government wished that the travelling journalists be cheerleaders for the cause of liberation.
Each one was issued with a booklet which, as noted military historian Phillip Knightley tells us, required the reporter to "help in leading and steadying public opinion in times of national stress and crisis".
Added to this there were seven MoD censors and military press officers attached to each unit.
John Shirley, who worked for the Sunday Times and travelled with the task force, has described an atmosphere of hostility on board which soon developed into one of mainly mutual appreciation.
"The absence of foreign journalists," he has said, "helped to narrow our perspective of what was going on... by the end we all became 'troopy groupies'."
That is not to say that Shirley and his colleagues were happy with their treatment at the hands of the MoD.
Far from it - they had to rely completely on the MoD for information.
Let's not forget that these men were not experienced war reporters and were dependent upon the armed forces for everything, not least for their lives.
So, while our armed forces defeated the Argentinians, the Ministry of Defence was trying to rout the British media.
All significant news, good or bad, was announced or leaked from London.
Reports from the frontline, such as they were, were censored, delayed, occasionally lost, and at best sent back as slowly as possible.
When relations between the press and the navy on board the HMS Hermes were at their worst, Michael Nicholson of ITN and Peter Archer of the Press Association prefaced their bulletins with the rider that they were being censored. …