Throughout Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, the government and media in London reacted indignantly to wildly false claims emanating from Buenos Aires. With Argentine propagandists repeatedly sinking the British aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible, even though neither was ever hit, frustrated foreign correspondents in Buenos Aires complained about the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in what they came to call "the Bozo zone."
But those of us trying to cover the Falklands war from 8,000 miles away in London felt nearly as far removed from reality, even though we had access to more verifiable information. We also were being denied significant facts and knew, though we could not then prove, that we were being purposely misled in many cases.
In a recent parliamentary inquiry, British officials for the first time acknowledged misleading the media about British intentions, strengths and weaknesses on numerous occasions during the war. They were, however, more subtle than their Argentine counterparts.
"We aimed throughout not to lie," testified Sir Frank Cooper, the civil servant who runs Britain's defense ministry. "But there were occasions when we did not tell the whole truth and did not correct things that were being misread."
Hours before 5,000 British troops were landed at San Carlos Bay on East Falkland Island in a massive amphibious operation, Sir Frank himself had confided to British newsmen in a restricted background briefing that there were "no plans" for a "D-Day-type invasion." This was not really a lie, he recently told the parliamentary inquiry, because the allies' World War II invasion on D-Day was "an opposed landing," while few Argentine defenders were expected or encountered in the British landing at San Carlos.
He and other officials also left uncorrected a number of news reports, based on speculative leaks from inside the British government, that made it appear the Royal Navy had significantly more ships, submarines and aircraft around the Falklands than it actually did at various times. A nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine widely reported to be enforcing the original British naval blockade around the Falklands was later found in port in Scotland.
Good news was sometimes released prematurely, with the British recapture of Port Darwin and Goose Green announced a half-day before the Argentine defenders actually surrendered. Bad news, from accidental crashes of British warplanes and helicopters to the number of casualties inflicted by Argentine air strikes, often was held up for days.
Some facts, like the large number of British ships hit by Argentine bombs that failed to explode, have still not been officially released in Britain. In fact, the defense ministry in London has yet to provide reliable figures on either the equipment losses suffered by British forces or those inflicted on the Argentinians. Yet, just yesterday, officials of government- owned British Aerospace, Inc., here to promote the sophisticated British-made weapons that proved so efficient during the Falklands conflict, had no difficulty producing their own statistics on the number of Argentine planes downed by British Harrier jets and surface-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Television networks were prevented from broadcasting live from the Royal Navy's Falklands task force, and their film of events in the South Atlantic took weeks to reach London by ship and plane. So the war was nearly over before Britons saw dramatic scenes of the destruction of some of their warships or heard emotional interviews with survivors. Still photographs of burning British warships, transmitted more quickly to London, were blocked from publication by military censors for days and sometimes weeks.
Among the strongest critics of British censorship and disinformation during the war are many of the British correspondents, photographers and technicians who were allowed to accompany the task force to the South Atlantic. The Royal Navy tried to keep all newsmen off the task force, but was overruled by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, who interceded personally for most of the 28 successful applicants. Foreign newsmen were completely excluded.
The BBC correspondent with the task force, Brian Hanrahan, testified to the parliamentary inquiry that the British commander, Adm. John Woodward, told reporters he intended to use the media "to cause as much confusion to the enemy as possible." The newsmen reached an agreement with him, according to Hanrahan, "where he was entitled to stop us reporting things, but we were not prepared to report things that were incorrect."
For an American correspondent in London, none of this should be really surprising. In normal times, the British press accepts a far greater amount of government secrecy and news manipulation than American or foreign newsmen would put up with in Washington.
In place of any legal obligation on the government to make information public--such as the U.S. Freedom of Information Act--the pervasive secrecy of Britain's civil service, military and politicians is protected by an arsenal of powerful legal weapons. The sweeping Official Secrets Act, though only selectively enforced, threatens prosecution and imprisonment of anyone from bureaucrats to newsmen involved in making public any unauthorized government information. The "D notice" system, the provisions of which themselves were long an official secret, is usedby the British military to routinely notify editors and broadcasters that they cannot report specific items of information that often have already been put on the public record elsewhere by the United States, otherrgovernments or international agencies. Wealthy, blue-blooded and prominent Britons, including politicians and government officials, have long used the country's strict, punitive libel laws to prevent publication of information they find uncomplimentary.
More insidious, however, is a practice that most British journalists agree to voluntarily and even help to protect. Most of their contacts with politicians and government officials are kept completely off the record through what is called the "lobby" -- named for an area in the House of Commons where many of these contacts take place, although every government agency has its own lobby arrangement with newsmen covering it. Newsmen participating in "lobby" briefings and conversations are obligated to keep secret all their sources, all direct quotes, and even the times and locations of such contacts. They are sometimes forbidden by their sources to publish important information revealed in these contacts.
This system enables the British government to manage much of what is reported by the national newspapers and television and radio networks and to escape responsibility for planting information -- true or false -- that newsmen must report only on an "it is understood" basis. This was the system used by the British defense ministry to control through the lobby of defense correspondents most information about the Falklands war. Only these correspondents were allowed into secret briefings held throughout the war, while the rest of the large body of newsmen covering the conflict from London were told little in public statements and press conferences.
Few British newsmen sought to find out more from officials or senior politicians outside these government-controlled forums. The leading political correspondent for a respected British Sunday newspaper said he would not even try to contact members of Thatcher's inner "war cabinet" because he doubted they would talk to him and he wanted to avoid "doing anything that might endanger our boys." As a result of such self-censorship, it was left to an American newsman to report from sources in the war cabinet that it had unanimously made the decision to sink the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, one of the most important military and political events of the war.
Much of this had shocked me when I first arrived in Britain as a correspondent more than three years ago. But by the time the Falklands war brought a large number of fresh American colleagues to London near the end of my tour, I was surprised by their outraged response to a system that I, too, had grown to live with.
Even after the Falklands war ended, only a few British journalists questioned whether such pervasive news management, in peace or war, was good for the country. One of them, Charles Wintour, writing in the Sunday Observer, emphasized that "the hidden attitudes of many people in authority toward the media have been exposed. They think the public should be told as little as possible. They don't object to deception on matters both large and small. They dislike reporters. And they prefer that ruling circles should be left to run the state without being bothered by troublesome disclosures and unpleasant truths.
"In fact," Wintour concluded, "some of them don't really care much for democracy either."