The Falklands conflict certainly presented problems for British television and the press.
But although we have some criticisms to make, it would be quite wrong to suggest that British television news was a willing tool of government policy and therefore simply a vehicle for government propaganda. The Conservative Party in general was not happy with the BBC and in an angry meeting at the House of Commons rebuked the Chairman and Director-General Designate. This was a product of several incidents culminating in a Panorama current affairs programme entitled Can we avoid War? This was described by Conservative MP Sally Oppenheim in the House of Commons as an ’odious and subversive travesty’. The Prime Minister herself questioned whether the British case was being put fully and effectively. She also indicated that the extensive use of retired Air Marshals, Admirals and Generals to discuss strategy and tactics might give unintended assistance to the enemy.
But there were definite conflicts of principle. The right to the free flow of information in a democratic society was set against the need for censorship in the interests of the war effort. The right to present different points of view about the Falklands issue and the war policy was set against the call to speak for the national interest ( which in this context meant Government policy).
We will take two examples of TV coverage of the Falklands conflict. One refers to the Peruvian peace plan which was formulated after the failure of the Haig peace shuttle between London and Buenos Aires. The second refers to some early air action in the war, the bombing of Port Stanley airport.
Peruvian Peace Plan
This view of the breakdown of the initiative was reinforced in the subsequent news coverage.
In 84 TV news programmes between May 1 and May 15 there were, according to our initial analysis, only four references made to alternative interpretations of the failure of the negotiations. On only one occasion did a newscaster refer to an alternative account. This was on News at Ten on May 10.
This statement was never elaborated on or taken up elsewhere in the coverage. It was, however, the former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who articulated most clearly on TV news an alternative explanation of the collapse of the Peruvian initiative. In an interview on News at Ten Falklands Extra, he said:
Heath’s criticism of the government’s handling of the negotiations was ignored by the interviewer and the subject was not pursued. This interview, from our initial examination, was the only occasion on TV news that reference was made to the amendments put forward by’ Argentina to the Peruvian proposals. The crucial point is the charge made by Heath that the government has a case to answer on the failure of the Peruvian plan.
The former Prime Minister’s remarks represented a wider debate in Parliament and in the press on the collapse of the negotiations. The quality newspapers carried differing accounts of the plan’s fate. There were contradictory’ reports as to whether Britain had accepted the proposals. Some newspapers reported that the Argentine had rejected the plan while others stated that the Peruvians did not bother to put them formally to the Argentine in the light of Britain’s unfavourable response. The Times on May6 reported that Argentina’s rejection of the plan was a response to the sinking of the cruiser, the General Belgrano. All the quality newspapers carried the comments of Peru’s foreign minister on May 5 who stated that Argentine had no alternative but to reject his government’s proposals following what he described as ‘this excessive act’.
TV coverage of the Peruvian peace initiative seemed to fit a pattern of news reporting established early’ in the conflict. Argentine was generally portrayed as being intransigent or negotiating in bad faith or stalling for time, whereas Britain was usually referred to as being flexible or making considerable concessions or working hard for peace to no avail. This reporting seemed to reinforce the belief that Argentina was not willing to negotiate seriously and as a consequence that the military option was inevitable.
Port Stanley Bombings
The assumptions of the report, although qualified with such words as ‘probably’ and ‘likely’, appear as a factual account by an expert. But on virtually all counts - the number of aircraft, the notion that laser guided bombs are designed to avoid civilian casualties and the number of craters in the runway- the report was based on speculative elaboration of the scant information provided by the Ministry of Defence.
The image of the raids being successful was reinforced by subsequent reports.
On May 9 Argentine TV film reached London and showed the runway still in use. The immediate reaction was to question the authenticity of the film. News reports concentrated on the unreliability of Argentine TV film and in particular emphasised the similarity of the film to that of some footage shown on Argentine TV in mid April. The Ministry of Defence continued to assert that the runway was inoperable, which further added to the confusion With the release of further Argentine film showing the runway intact British television news did attempt to balance the claims of the Junta and the Ministry of Defence concerning the runway and the blockade. The tone of these reports, however, was to give the benefit of doubt to the MoD. Commenting on Argentine film of the runway one correspondent stated:
The contradiction between Argentine film and British official claims led to some embarrassing situations for the Ministry of Defence. For example, ITN showed film of a Hercules transport plane- the heaviest in the Argentine airforce - using the runway accompanied by a correspondent saying:
ITN, however, as relations between the media and the Ministry of Defence over the dissemination of information deteriorated, directly called on the Ministry to substantiate their claim to have put the runway out of action
That same evening BBC2 news continued to assert the claims of the Ministry of Defence.
TV news from mid-May to the end of the fighting carried reports which gave the impression of a beleaguered and desperate garrison at Port Stanley. Argentine troops were reported:
When British television news did report that the blockade was broken the account usually focused on the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the incident:
The implication of most of the reports was that the blockade was on the whole effective.
After the retaking of Port Stanley on June 14 it became clear that Argentine aircraft had been using the runway up until the day before the surrender. But TV helped to create an impression to the contrary. Correspondents gave an inaccurate picture which they did little to correct.
Journalists were under considerable pressure during the Falklands War. They had to produce timely and accurate reports in the face of missing information, ambiguous information, misinformation and even from time to time disinformation. The Ministry of Defence’s attitude to the dissemination of information did not assist the production of accurate reporting. And journalists who did attempt to weigh up information from official sources were sharply criticised by the government, which seemed to see the role of journalists as supporting rather than reporting the conflict. However it must be said that British TV news did little to provide the viewer with information on which he or she could make any realistic judgement of Britain’s military position
Both the examples we have cited draw attention to a feature of news coverage that we have observed in other studies. Once a frame is established for a story there is a strong tendency to continue the story on subsequent occasions within that framework. This means in practice that information which does not fit that picture is either ignored or not taken up in any detailed way. Rarely does it reach the absurdity of showing a picture which manifestly contradicts the story as in the case of the Hercules plane using the allegedly non-operational Port Stanley airfield. Less obvious was the passing reference made to the blockade of the islands being breached by the Argentines.
In the case of Port Stanley the confusion and contradictory news reports following the arrival of Argentine TV film from the islands indicate the difficulty in restructuring the framework set up in the first week of May. To be fair, there were some attempts to do this in the case of the Port Stanley bombings. Yet it was never explicitly stated that planes were regularly landing on the runway. Similarly with the Peruvian peace plan, the general position of Argentine intransigence and British flexibility on the diplomatic front was established early. The failure of the plan was simply presented as confirmation of what we already knew. Alternative information, even when used as in the Heath interview, was not made an occasion for reassessing the theme of the story.
In this respect TV news is less flexible than quality press reporting - developing a momentum of its own. This is perhaps more a result of the professional practice of the newsroom than a consequence of external pressure on the management of news. Once a news story is started then it may be felt to threaten the credibility of news if it has to be restructured or reformulated. The result can be TV news that shows only half the picture.
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.