5 JUNE 1982, Page 18

The press

Media massacre ahead?

Paul Johnson

The signs are that the battle over the Falklands will be followed by a l?attle over the British media when the men from the task force get home. Britain's serving officers are by no means as reticent as they used to be in speaking their minds in public. The first shot was fired on Friday when Vice-Admiral Robert Squires, Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland, told a British Legion conference that the media had 'given far too much information to the enemy'. According to The Times, he blam- ed particularly 'continual publicity of names and numbers and types'. I must ad- mit I have been staggered by the details pro- vided of the composition of the task force, right from the very outset. It is true that such information can eventually be garnered by the enemy, but it is a maxim of war to give your opponent's intelligence services as little help as possible so that they have to do all the work for themselves.

The BBC, one need hardly say, has been a particular target of criticism. Some Sun- day newspapers printed extracts of a pooled dispatch by Max Hastings of the Standard in which the anger in the task force was allowed, for the first time, to surface. Ac- cording to Hastings's report, 'intense bit- terness' was expressed on the San Carlos beachhead: 'The attack was directed at Mr Andrew Walker, the BBC defence cor- respondent in the Falklands, who announc- ed correctly that the Parachute Regiment was due to hit Goose Green'. Hastings quoted one army man: 'How many enemies are we supposed to be fighting? If the Paras lose a lot of people, you know who told them what we were going to do'. In the view of some, the BBC compound- ed its faults by its treatment of the beachhead breakout at home. A bitter leader in the Sunday Express reported that on Friday night's Nine O'Cloek News the BBC defence correspondent, Christopher Wain, told viewers: 'The news blackout has now lasted 48 hours and that could be a sign that things may not be going well'. The ex- traordinary ineptitude of this instant com- ment — by no means untypical of BBC coverage — preceded by only half an hour the announcement that Goose Green and Darwin had been taken. The BBC com- ment, complained the Express, was 'worth- less, scaremongering speculation', likely to 'cause untold anxiety and distress' to viewers with relatives in the action. Gloom has been the keynote of the BBC coverage, as it has of the left-wing media generally, with a stress on losses, difficulties and the financial cost, the impossibility of a satisfactory long-term outcome, and an em- phasis on Argentinian will, enthusiasm and righteousness. A characteristic example was the Panorama of 24 May, in which one BBC nonentity attempted to harass John Nott over the sovereignty issue while another in New York gave the kid-glove treatment to Costa Mendez, Argentina's Ribbentrop. It struck me as odd that NO should consent to appear on this suspect and second-rate programme. It is claimed, of course, that BBC types show 'independence' and 'courage' by refusing to take 'the patriotic line'. Quite the contrary. In the BBC culture, knocking Britain is the absolute guarantee to .i013 security and promotion. What takes

guts is

criticising the arrogant and intolerant radicals who run the programmes. A case in point was Robert Kee, whose letter to The Times came as a great embarrassment in members of the BBC's left-wing establish' ment. For an alleged breach of contract in writing to the press, Kee was suspended, without pay and eventually lost his job. But as Woodrow Wyatt pointed out in the Sun- day Mirror, 'The editor of Panorama and the producer of the film also wrote letters to The Times. They took the other side and kept their jobs'. Wyatt asked: 'Is there one rule about writing to the press for those who suck up to the BBC hierarchy and another for those who don't?' The Hastings dispatch from the Falklands also voiced criticism of the Ministry of Defence for over-provision 0', information. The wretched Ministry is thus getting it both ways, for the complaint from Fleet Street is that it is tardy and mean with its news. This is supplemented by a 01; tradictory accusation that the Ministry is engaging in 'news management'. Last Stun- day the Observer's defence correspondent Andrew Wilson, complained that the Press had been 'misled' and 'manipulated' over number of episodes, including the dispatch of the submarine Superb, the South Georgia landings and the San Carlos assault. The 'chief means of manipulating news coverage' had been 'confidential briefings in Whitehall'. Wilson argued that the lack of official news produced an in formation vacuum' in which it required 'only a wink from official sources for jour- nalists to dash off and write headline stories'. I would say that Wilson's corn' plaint is largely nonsense. The Ministry has had to steer a difficult path between giving nothing away of use to the enemy and satis; fying the media's insatiable appetite, ana on the whole it has done well, erring _if , anything on the side of over-disclosure. Lir Binary readers and viewers accept the military necessity that news must be held OP until an action is completed and are prepared to wait. As for 'news management', that is a meaningless term of abuse invented by American radicals. All it really signifies Is the decision-making process by which tie° is selected for release. All editors engage in 'news management': it is their job. The great strength of the British Government is that it does not tell lies and that what news it does release can be relied upon to be true. Characteristically, the media-apPcasers, who complain of British news management have not hesitated to use material from the Argentine which has been subjected to `management' (i.e., invention) of the crudest kind. BBC news bulletins often con- tain long and detailed Argentinian reports which are palpably false: the Argentinian version is sometimes believed and given at greater length than purely factual British accounts. British newspapers fall easily vic- tim to enemy news management. The Sun- day Times 'Insight' team, supposedly hard- boiled about such things, gave massive pro- minence last week to Argentinian pro- paganda material about the 'bravado and persistence' of her pilots: 'The atmosphere at bases like Rio Gallegos, near Santa Cruz, is not unlike the mood at Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain'. I should have thought a more accurate comparison would have been with Goering's Luftwaffe pilots. But no matter; one doesn't expect much from the Sunday Times these days.