LONDON, FEB. 1 -- For the British press, the Persian Gulf conflict poses one big problem: It isn't the Falklands War.
In 1982 when an Argentine junta seized those small specks of British territory in the South Atlantic, the popular tabloid press worked itself into a jingoistic frenzy and the nation breathlessly followed the headlines. There was high drama in the steady progress of the Royal Navy task force sent south to the rescue, in the Churchill-like persona of warrior Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and in the triumphant ending.
This time around, the drama is muted, the recently deposed Thatcher silent -- replaced by a relentlessly uncharismatic successor -- and the end nowhere in sight. Worst of all, the war mostly belongs to George Bush and the Americans, with the British confined to the same kind of supporting role that Richard Burton and Sean Connery played in "The Longest Day."
It's an American media event as well. Veteran reporters say the daily British Ministry of Defense briefings are an improvement over the stiff, tight-lipped affairs of the Falklands War but they pale beside the authoritative, more detailed performances of U.S. Gens. Colin Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Several days after the Americans broadcast videotapes of precision aerial bombings, the British tried to do the same -- but were forced to abort when the tape broke.
The Today newspaper labeled the British briefings the "daily farce." According to Sunday Times columnist Bryan Appleyard, "If what the MoD is doing is public relations, then Saddam Hussein is a baked potato."
The tabloids have done their best to raise the national temperature. Since opening day when the Daily Star delivered the headline "BANGDAD," the upstart Star and the best-selling Sun have waged a war of their own for control of the hearts and minds of British readers. Each has plastered the Union Jack on its front pages and sought to anoint itself as the official mouthpiece of the war effort.
The Sun describes itself daily as the "Paper That Backs Our Boys and Girls" and has dressed up its traditional nude models on Page 3 with gun belts, helmets and other military hardware.
The Star, which each morning exhorts the troops with "Go Get 'Em, Boys!" has adopted a British battleship and is running a Saddam Hussein look-alike contest under the headline "Are You Mad Sad's Double?" It also offers readers a gulf package, for just under $8, that includes a "Go Get 'Em Boys!" bumper sticker, a large yellow ribbon, a badge and a "These Colors Don't Run" T-shirt featuring Old Glory and the Union Jack side by side.
Editor Brian Hitchen says the Star's daily circulation of 895,000 has climbed an additional 50,000 since war began. "You've got to be in touch with your readers, and our readers are very interested in this story," he says. "People might say they're sick of all the coverage, but it's still the only thing they're talking about."
Other editors and newspaper analysts contend that despite the Star's hysterics, British blood simply isn't boiling this time around. "All this stuff just doesn't resonate with the British public the way it did during the Falklands," says Hugh Stephenson, a retired newspaper editor and professor of journalism at University College in London.
"People just don't get excited about the invasion of Kuwait the way they did over the seizure of British territory. The feeling on the streets is a sort of worried bemusement, not jingoism."
The serious British newspapers have done their usual thorough job in providing blanket gulf coverage similar to that of their American counterparts. But the contrast between officials in London and Washington in providing information has been stark. While American journalists accuse their government of occasionally hiding the facts, their British colleagues contend concealment is standard procedure here.
"There's a completely different culture about information in the United States," says Stephenson. "Your journalists have the right to ask questions; we don't."
The daily Ministry of Defense briefings have been given by Defense Secretary Tom King and Air Marshal Sir David Craig, chief of the British defense staff. Craig especially has been derided for his stoical refusal to divulge details.
"Thin, stiff lips, immobile features, wooden delivery and that oppressive air of wishing to be somewhere else" is how columnist Appleyard describes Craig. "Talking to the press is a mildly disreputable chore... . On CNN he looks like first world war footage."
British officials admit their early briefings left something to be desired. "We took the view our generals were best employed sorting out the war," says a senior aide to Prime Minister John Major. Lately, he says, that decision has changed and ground commanders such as Lt. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, a rugged, no-nonsense veteran, have given new authority to the briefings.
The level of hostility between the press and the government here is just as high as in Washington. Many journalists believe British officials use secrecy less for security reasons than to protect themselves from embarrassment. When a lap-top computer full of classified allied war data was stolen from the car of a British wing commander who left it there while shopping, Ministry of Defense officials ordered news editors to withhold the news for a week on the grounds that Iraqi agents might try to buy the machine from the thief.
"It then got out abroad and was running on the foreign agency tapes and they still wanted to suppress the news -- as if the Iraqis only read the British newspapers and not the foreign agency reports," said David Montgomery, editor of Today.
For their part, officials contend the press often does not understand the potential military value of what it reports. Today, a senior commander here said Iraqi forces may have decided to target Khafji, Saudi Arabia, for attack this week after seeing Western press reports that disclosed the border town was undefended.
And Defense Secretary King showed a flash of impatience during a briefing early in the conflict when he told a reporter who asked for details about the downing of a British warplane: "I'm very glad you asked that question because that is precisely the kind of question I'm not prepared to answer."