BBC Criticized by Other Media, Gave
Relatively Fair Coverage
GOTCHA! The Media, The Government and Che Falklands
By Robert Harris, Faber and Faber Limited
158 pages, $9.75 paperback
Reviewed by Brian Burch
The ultimate casualty in war may not be the mutilated
victims, or truth, but relationships between established institutions.
In GOTCHA! Robert Harris provides details of disputes between military
and government along with their tabloid allies on the one side,
and such responsible journalistic enterprises as the BBC and the
Manchester Guardian, on the other. Harris constructs a pattern
of broken trusts, manipulation of and by the media and intervention
by the military into the broadcasting and publishing industries.
Most of us view the role of media during wartime as being one of
bringing the horrors and routines of battle into our homes. The
British military, looking back at the way their media covered the
Second World War, expected the coverage of the Falklands crisis
to be a propaganda campaign to boost political support at home
and to hide the realities of war from the British people.
Some papers did attempt this. British tabloids became ultra-patriotic.
The title of Harris's book is the banner headline of an early edition
of the Sun, a headline praising an event which killed more than
1,000 people, the May 3, 1982 sinking of the Argentine cruiser The
General Belgrano. Similar headlines, and copy to match, appeared
in tabloids throughout the war. Their editorials went so far as
to echo the claims of Prime Minister Thatcher that the BBC, the
Guardian and other media institutions were traitors for not backing
the war effort with sufficient fervor. The struggle for media intregrity
during wars, essential to Harris, was compromised by such an attitude
on the part of some of the largest circulating papers in Britain.
The British Navy did provide transportation for a small group
of reporters, selected by a combination of patronage and lottery.
But the navy withheld real co-operation in a number of ways, it
didn't help TV journalists send back film to Britain, for instance.
So the British media at times had to use Argentine film footage
of combat situations, this absurdly being the only visual record
The military justified their censorship by pointing to the experience
of the United States authorities during the Vietnam War. Despite
evidence to the contrary, British political and military leaders
insisted that American television coverage of the Vietnam War led
to the weakening of American support for the war and thus was a
major factor in the U.S. defeat. It may be the media share this
view. Yet Harris notes studies are available which he claims show
the TV coverage of the Vietnam War had no effect on American viewers'
attitudes toward that war, other than to make them more indifferent
to atrocities. In my opinion Harris provides a more honest appraisal
of the impact of war reporting on the public than either the British
military or media were concerned with.
Harris feels that in the Vietnam War, as in the Suez Crisis, the
media did not support the war, but chose to portray the essences
of unjust wars. Pro-war British leaders, however, were looking for
the kind of journalists who would find it natural to praise the
fire-bombing of Dresden and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima,
writers who would portray the joys of triumph without noticing the
We are often reminded by Harris that, in wartime, even those who
might sympathize with a free press and attempt to be helpful are
often restricted in their own freedom to aid the media. Ministry
of Defence PR people were assigned to small groups of journalists
to act as liaison between competing military and media interests.
Harris portrays these "minders" as basically useless,
given the hostility they caught from both sides.
Reporters back home also were faced with problems from the military.
The most obvious example of lying to the media was when Sir Frank
Cooper, the deputy minister of defense, told a press conference
there would be no D-Day style invasion of the Falkland Islands,
even as preparations for such a landing were in their final stages.
Harris provides a critical and factual look at what can happen
when the media are put into a controlled setting, that of covering
a war, during an era of increasing government paranoia and decreasing
public respect both either electronic and print media.
GOTCHA! makes a major point when it deals with the infighting between
the popular press and the tabloids. The Times and the Guardian,
for example, did try to be accurate and moderate in their descriptions
of the war, yet were consistent of portraying the Argentinians
as being the sole aggressors. The tabloids expressed the same anti-Argentinian
feelings in a less polite way, and also attacked the broadsheet
press for not cheering on the troops in the manner of sports fans.
The more reputable papers did fight for greater access to material
and the right to transmit it from the battlefield but ultimately
they responded to the war in the same way as did the less reputable
A more positive view emerges of the BBC, which had the courage
to present a one hour show featuring prominent opponents of the
war and Britain's role in it. For such fairness the BBC was threatened
with direct government control. The BBC was also severely criticized
even in those papers that were criticizing the government for controlling
information about the war.
The book does not provide an alternative way of handling the problems.
Vietnam coverage, the model seemingly favoured by Harris, was made
possible by a tradition of more militant press criticism of the
government during wartime. As well, the Vietnam War was land-based.
Media were not dependent on the military to arrange for transmission
By not providing an alternative vision, Harris lets us down. We
know that military-controlled coverage of war will end up being
slanted in ways the controllers find comfortable. Given the pro-establishment
bias of our media even during peace time, it would be surprising
if there would have been any major difference in the coverage of
the Falklands War in Britain had the British media been freer.
Published in SOURCES Summer 83
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