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BBC Criticized by Other Media, Gave Relatively Fair Coverage

GOTCHA! The Media, The Government and Che Falklands Crisis
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 available.

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 corpses.

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 papers.

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 of material.

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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