The events of the past few days have made the row over BBC coverage of the fighting in the South Atlantic ["The BBC's War Over Words," op-ed, May 19] somewhat academic, since the hawkish point of view has obviously prevailed here. But the issues it raised are still with us, and are worth considering a little further.
Criticism of BBC handling of Falklands news has been stronger in official circles -- and particularly in Parliament -- than among the public at large. Polls taken before British forces invaded the islands showed the public broadly satisfied with the way the news was presented.
Most people would accept that the posture of "objectivity" is legitimate and gives the corporation additional credibility, particularly in its World Service broadcasts, although some are offended by the directive to avoid the use of the pronouns "them" and "us." It grates a bit to hear Peter Snow, for example, on the much followed "Newsnight" program, refer skeptcially to "British" claims.
But the real trouble starts when the BBC uses its prestige commentary programs to plug a particular view, sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally, as it did with the dovish argument on the Falklands. The corporation jumped right in at the deep end of the political dispute.
The whole phony-war period of the Falklands dispute -- indeed, its day-to-day evolution -- was dominated at the domestic political level by the dispute between hawks and doves. Hawks ranged from those at the extremity, who want to put a mini-nuke on the Russian grain silos in the River Plate (seriously), through those who wanted a conventional battle that would allow the Royal Navy to show that although no longer the largest, it remains the best in the world, to the broad majority of both the Tory and Labor parties, who approved of sending the task force but hoped its presence would get the necessary concessions without bloodshed.
At this point, doves and hawks look much alike. But this is the dividing line: even the timid hawks recognized that if there was no deal, the task force had to shoot it out; the doves, on the other hand, would have quit -- and there were plenty of them who didn't even want to send the fleet down in the first place.
Distances between these extremes are very wide. When you appreciate that the divisions are highly sensitive in party political terms, as also in personal ones, you will understand how easily accusations of treachery and jingoism fly around.
Both sides used the media to advance their arguments. The hawks more or less cornered the mass-circulation dailies (Sun, Star, Express, Mail, Telegraph -- about 11 million readers) which whipped up public fervor to a state unequaled since the Jameson Raid that began the Boer War. So successful was this that it went far beyond its original objective, which was simply to prevent a sellout, and was positively restricting the government's operational freedom.
The doves countered with steady pressure in the "quality" press (Guardian, Times, Financial Times, Observer -- about 4 million readers). Careful leaks and briefings from ministers and senior officials who had private doubts -- and certainly some pressure from U.S. diplomats in London -- worked away at "informed" opinion.
The "Panorama" program that triggered an explosion of rage by the hawks against the BBC was screened at a critical moment, at the very equipoise of the first round of negotiations with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. Although billed and later defended as an inquiry into "dissent" from the official line within the Tory party, it devoted nearly as much time to showing how amiable and moderate the Argentines were. There was a long introductory interview with the Argentine ambassador to the United Nations in which he was encouraged -- in contrast to the hectoring and interrogative tone that "Panorama" interviewers adopt with politicians in their own country -- to set out his country's arguments at leisure. Then came the views of an English woman, married to an Argentine, and some extensive footage, to home-movie standard, of her teen-age children singing patriotic (Argentine) songs to a guitar accompaniment.
Most British audiences were by now grinding their teeth (the BBC switchboard was jammed with protest calls for three hours after the showing stopped). But the commentator went on to quote a series of uncorroborated remarks by the chief of the air staff about the dangers involved. (This was a particularly serious lapse of journalistic ethics, later atoned for by an apology, as the source was not the chief of the air staff himself, but the surmise of the leading dove MP on the Labor side, Tam Dalyell.) When we actually got down to the "dissent" in the Tory party, viewers were confined to two witnesses, both with minimal status and responsibility.
The whole program was about as subliminal as a commercial for wash powder. Indeed, if the arguments and implications had been less crudely presented, it would have been more dangerous (or effective, depending on your standpoint).
The Conservative Party has long been suspicious of the BBC because of the undeniable fact that its trainees seem always to be recruited from those with extreme left-wing motivation. And some of these do eventually get to the top, like Richard Francis, the head of outside broadcasting, who has declared, "The widow in Buenos Aires is no different from the widow in Portsmouth."
Certainly an alignment with the protest industry seems to be mandatory for the ambitious. If you have other opinions, keep quiet, as was discovered by the unfortunate Robert Kee, presenter of the "Panorama" program, who wrote afterward to The Times explaining his own reservations about it and was promptly sacked by the corporation.
But all this is well known; and tolerated, if not welcomed, by the Conservative Party. What the party would not accept or forgive though, was the corporation's attempt, under the pretense of objectivity, to get in and stir up the divisions of which most Conservatives are at the present time uncomfortably aware.