If you are unfamiliar with Radio Atlantico del Sur you may find it useful to read an earlier post which summarises the story of what was known within the MoD as Project MOONSHINE.
Introducing Mr Bernard Ingham
Very few of those intimately involved with Radio Atlantico del Sur were public figures. One exception was Sir Frank Cooper, the top civil servant (permanent under-secretary) at the Ministry of Defence, who – despite the other pressures of an exceedingly busy time – gave time and energy to the project.
Initially sceptical of the wisdom of such a radio station, he was won round and then championed the venture against opposition from elsewhere in Whitehall, mainly the Foreign Office.
Another public figure moved across the stage, albeit only briefly, in the RAdS drama. This was Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's chief press secretary throughout her prime ministership.
Ingham – a familiar face on British TV in the 1980s – sometimes appeared more Thatcherite than his boss, but on the issue of Radio Atlantico del Sur he took the opposite side to the prime minister.
Mr Ingham (he was not knighted until after Thatcher left office in 1990) cultivated the persona of a blunt-speaking and clear-thinking Yorkshireman whose job was to knock common sense into the fanciful heads of London journalists.
There was no good reason for Ingham to have been concerned with the planning of Radio Atlantico del Sur. It was a purely military project and, until its launch, not disclosed to the public. At most, it might have been appropriate for him to have become involved when the MoD issued a press statement on the station's launch.
But Ingham chose to intervene during early May 1982 when the MoD and FCO were arguing over whether Project MOONSHINE should go ahead.
This culminated, on 10 May, when he wrote to several senior civil servants expressing his strong opposition to MOONSHINE.
Ingham's letter in declassified Ministry of Defence file DEFE 25/502
Image credit: Lee Richards
Transcript of the letter
From the Press Secretary 10 May 1982
Dear Nick [possibly Nicholas Fenn, head of the FCO's News Department],
You mentioned the above and, while I suspect – and very much hope – that it is dead, I should perhaps set out my views for the record.
As I understand it, the project is intended to play downmarket propaganda tricks through a "requisitioned" transmitter with the objective of sapping the morale of the Argentines.
There are many arguments against this course but the clincher is that it would not work – except perhaps to the enhanced reputation of the BBC. It would not work for the following reasons:
– we live in a free democracy with a free media;
– any new "station" would therefore have to compete, among others, with the BBC's established reputation;
– to compete and to secure an audience it would presumably have to advertise itself and its "authority";
– it would therefore become known and the BBC, unless it was entirely cavalier with its own interests, would seek to destroy its rival at the first opportunity;
– the new station would thus become rapidly known as a propagandist exercise; it would soon be discredited along with the Government, some of whose Ministers would end up with a great deal of egg on their face and possibly without a job. Can you imagine the media/Parliamentary outcry if so much as a whisper of this ludicrous idea ever surfaced?
I know you feel that the idea could only damage the BBC. I think there is considerable risk of this if the idea were ever to go ahead. But the BBC could turn it to its advantage if the scenario I set out above were to prove reasonably accurate. The BBC could do much to enhance its independence if it chose to expose Operation Moonshine for what it would be.
In short, there is nothing but trouble in it for Britain. We would be a lot better off if MoD put as much effort into ensuring a prompt PR response to South Atlantic events as it apparently puts into dreaming up moonshine.
I am copying to Clive Whitmore [Thatcher's Principal Private Secretary], Sir Frank Cooper [Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence], John Groves [Director-General of the Central Office of Information], Ian McDonald [MoD chief spokesman] and Simon Fuller [South Atlantic Presentation Unit in the Cabinet Office].
Analysis: what was Ingham worried about?
Ingham's letter betrayed a number of misunderstandings about what was being proposed.
He foresaw the planned radio station competing with "the BBC's established reputation", and this leading the BBC to "seek to destroy its rival at the first opportunity".
But Radio Atlantico del Sur was never intended in any way to compete with the BBC. Its sole target audience was members of the Argentine forces in the Falklands – not, as Ingham seemed to have thought, the very much wider audience in Argentina which listened to the BBC's Latin America service.
Similarly, Ingham appeared utterly confused between the UK and global audience for the information provided by the MoD press office, which he worried was not providing a "prompt PR response to South Atlantic events", and the purely military target for RAdS's broadcasts.
Finally, Ingham was convinced that the project was nothing but a "propagandist exercise" that "intended to play downmarket propaganda tricks".
In fact, the radio's staff were specifically instructed not to engage in "propaganda" – if that term meant, for example, trying to persuade listeners to accept the British case for sovereignty over the islands. The staff were also told to avoid anything that could be seen as undermining Argentine troops' loyalty to their flag.
As for what Ingham called "propaganda tricks", RAdS's civilian manager Neil ffrench-Blake instructed his staff, in writing, that "No lies are to be told."
What happened next?
Ingham's bid to scupper Project MOONSHINE came to naught.
Within a few days of his letter, the final proposal to start broadcasts had been drafted for approval by the War Cabinet, and the station went on the air on 19 May. Nothing more seems to have been heard from the Number 10 press office on the subject.
In his memoirs, ffrench-Blake says that once the War Cabinet had given its approval:
To take the pressure off, we removed all opponents to the scheme, including Mr Ingham, from our circulation list, and changed our code name [from MOONSHINE] to "PINOCCIO" [sic].The day after Ingham wrote his letter, it received this rebuke in a handwritten note on an MoD memo:
Does anyone recognise the handwriting?Image credit: Lee Richards
Who is this smug fellow Ingham?
I could write in similar vein about some of his ventures.
(Not that I am pro-Moonshine)Along with those comments, note that paragraph 2.g says:
No. 10 Press Sec wrote to the FCO an emotive, ill-informed opposition to the Project.And, remembering Ingham's comments about RAdS competing with the BBC, see paragraph 3.c:
The BBC... do not see Moonshine as a threat to their own efforts.
Disclaimer: I was employed by the BBC at the time of the 1982 war, and continue to be so.
However, this is an entirely personal blog post, reflecting only my views.
© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.