The Falklands, the BBC and military censorship - 14 May 1982

I don’t suppose that many of you are surfeited these days with news out of Sweden.

In fact, one of the sad things that's happened over the past 30, 40 years, since the rise of the two superpowers, is that most countries, even former great powers – since they can no longer decisively affect events all over the globe – have turned in on themselves, and report only the hassles and slanging matches of America and Russia, and for the rest stay with the news and politics and gossip of their own countries.

Before the second war there were a dozen newspapers of record around the world, most noticeably, in our ken, the London Times, the New York Times and Argentina’s awesome La Prensa. Here you would find dispatches from around the world, whatever the headlines were saying, reported as dispassionately as its humanly possible to do. More important still, these papers printed the full texts of treaties, bills, acts of parliament and the like. Today, they print summaries, digests, or whatever. What the Edwardians called "the well informed man", now has to write to government departments to get texts.

I have mentioned before, I think, the astonishing, the mountainous, output in this country of the world's largest publishing house, the United States Government Printing Office. More and more, I find, it’s to them that you have to turn. You write them or phone them and, in the next mail, you can have, for instance the 1983 budget laid out for you.

Of course such things are tedious to go through, but, as I more than hinted last time, if you do it you find that the facts are often at great variance with the summaries of them printed in the newspapers and even more at variance with the headlines that opened the summaries.

By the time we get down to what is called the popular press in some countries, all attempts to get the balance of the news right is abandoned in an orgy of instant argument, patriotism and sex. A well-informed people, wrote Thomas Jefferson, is the first bulwark of good government. Without it, all is a chaos of instinct.

Well, where does erm... Sweden come in? On Thursday morning there was a revealing, to me a fascinating, dispatch in the New York Times, out of Stockholm. It reminded us that, as Swedish politicians like to tell foreigners, Sweden is a one-issue-a-month country. This month, nuclear power; next month, sex clubs, which by the way, after 20, 30 years of permissiveness, they have now banned. And the month after that, drunken driving, which the Swedes punish more rigorously than anybody, since one whiff on the breath of the demon rum is enough to suspend your licence and two whiffs to throw you in jail.

Naturally, you’d expect this month to be Falklands month but, the Times man writes, Sweden has turned its attention to almost anything else at hand, rather than to what most of the world has been watching.

So that, when the question of "How many survivors from the General Belgrano?", Swedish television's story of the week was a stabbing in a chemist shop. And when the Sheffield was going down, the story was that of a killing in a suburb. The day after that the war almost disappeared, the man says, beneath the coverage of IFK Goteborg’s soccer victory over Hamburg in the least prestigious of the three European soccer competitions.

No call to feel superior, increasingly the press of the once-great half-dozen powers of the world act the same way. The point is that, this time most of the world – on a news stand in Times Square you can see papers from a score of countries – most of the world, has its eyes firmly and anxiously fixed on the battle of the south Atlantic.

Inevitably the newspapers of every country, big and little, of centre and southern America, are absorbed or obsessed by it, and if their reporters and headline writers seem to be, preoccupied with the action, it is not so with the editorial writers and commentators; they are looking beyond the war, to the consequences for all of them, not least for its effects on American foreign policy, on the inevitable realignment of alliances and on such fretful matters as whether, in the aftermath of war, the Soviet Union will decide to reward Argentina’s massive shipments of grain and beef with, from now on, massive shipments of armaments.

I should guess that the most anxious people in the United States State Department today are the people who man the Latin American desks, not to mention Secretary Haig himself who must anticipate, when the smoke has blown away, profound changes, mostly new enmities, among the 21 republics below the Rio Grande.

The example of the Swedish press came up to remind me that, of course, a great deal has been and is going on in the United States that has nothing to do with the Falklands. But because the experience of Britain at war – and with an American nation it is so new and startling – that it's difficult to take one’s eyes off it.

During the Second World War we got so used to prolonged war on many battlefronts that it didn’t seem callous to talk at length, as I remember doing, about domestic issues of such things as labour union fights, rivalries in the White House, a coal strike, even the death of a poet.

Not, even during the Vietnamese war, did I talk as I have done for four straight weeks in a row, exclusively about topic A. This time I wanted to say one thing about it and then hope that by the time some of you hear this, a ceasefire will signal the knotty but essential period preceding a settlement.

The prime minister's row with the BBC was reported on the three national television networks. We saw first the blazing, sometimes rude, headlines of the popular press, which were a fair match for the similar, blazing rude headlines of the Argentine press. We then heard the prime minister's complaint and the reply of the BBC’s director-general. The opinion of right-wing Conservatives was balanced with the opinion of left-win Labourites.

This report served two purposes, one that perhaps would not occur to a Briton involved in the argument. It shook, for the first time that I can remember, the assumption of 99 Americans in 100 that the BBC is a government-owned or government-run system. I can’t think of a single newspaper in this country, however eminent, that has not at some time, casually supported this preconception by throwing in the descriptive tag, the BBC, the government's broadcasting system. I have to remind some of my oldest friends here, that the BBC is an independent public corporation, and that some governments take a nasty view of it precisely because of its independence.

Americans, well informed shall we say, who deplore or dislike a barrage of commercials during the best programmes, as well as the worst, are apt to say, well it’s an annoying system but after all, the alternative is a government system and we don’t want that. It is at such moments that I – biting my lip and stifling my cud with well-practiced restraint – say, but it isn’t the only alternative you know, after all there is the BBC. This leads to a simple explanation, as revealing as the discovery by a five-year -old that little sister Suzie was not produced by the birds and the bees.

The second thing is the effect of this peppery row on watching, listening Americans. Need I say that our papers and our television automatically each day bring in their correspondents from Buenos Aires, as they do from London. We get the fullest accounts of the battle action, as each side reports it. This was so at distressing length throughout the two years that the United States reported the Second World War as an onlooker and, I might add, an onlooker more and more committed to the Allied cause.

Of course, in Britain and in Germany, there was the strictest military censorship. Vietnam was the first war, in our experience, where military censorship was minimal, restricted only to the movement of men and machines, and the intended movements – the battlefronts themselves – were reported on the spot, with the devastating discovery that many American soldiers hated the war, didn’t know what they were doing there, and from foxholes and scrub canyons, expressed themselves in simple gutsy language which in any other war would have had them court-martialled or at least taken out of the line.

Since Vietnam the democracies, it’s clear, have tried to fight wars with as little censorship as possible. It's obviously a tough procedure, but it doesn’t build up as our press and yours did in the First World War, a gung-ho picture of happy triumphant divisions well on their way to Berlin causing, in the aftermath, the most bitter and demoralising disillusion in the face of the truth.

The people I talk to saw these television reports about the row with the BBC, they said a gamut of friends – professional people, politicians and the grocer around the corner – they were not put out by the news that Britons were squabbling over the attempt to balance what the Argentine government said with what the British government said, it only confirmed the reminder that Britain is a democracy that, like any other democracy with a free press it's bound to be, as Jefferson said, boisterous.

My man behind the food counter around the corner put it best. "Well I mean," he said, "you wouldn’t believe the British would you, if they said everything was in apple pie order. And you are not going to believe Argentina, it’s a dictatorship, isn’t it?" When it’s all over, it seems to me, the angry protests against the BBC’s attempt at even-handedness, in a country that is itself a combatant, will not do Britain any harm.

Meanwhile, back at the Big Apple – the city, not the ranch – the sun heat has been coming in a little early on galloping strides, the 240 inches of snow in California, in the High Sierra, may at last be beginning to melt. But everywhere else the sun and the heat are softening or cracking the highways, making the bridges creak and easing holes in underground water pipes, and causing floods.

A new report just out tells us of the 600,000 bridges in the United States, this land of rivers, 240,000 of them are, technically, unsafe, that one half of all the paving of our highways will be unrideable by 1990, that $350billion is needed to repair our mouldering sewage systems and that New York city alone loses 100million gallons of water a day from rotting mains. Things could be worse.


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