Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Setting the record straight

This post was updated on 31 October 2017 to confirm Neil ffrench-Blake's authorship of the "Interim Assessment" document setting out Radio Atlantico del Sur's objectives. See below under the subheading "What the critics say".

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.

What is this blog post? This is the first of what will be several posts about Radio Atlantico del Sur, the Spanish-language shortwave station operated by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the final four weeks of the April-June 1982 Falklands War.

Note: There is no connection between Radio Atlantico del Sur in 1982 and the online music service Radio Atlantico Sur (sic) which streams Latin American music.

Acknowledgements

I must thank my old friend and fellow radio-history enthusiast Mike Barraclough for drawing my attention last year to the memoirs of Neil ffrench-Blake, the civilian manager of Radio Atlantico del Sur.

I also want to mention Professor Stewart Purvis, who assisted ffrench-Blake in publishing his memoirs, including clearing the text through the DSMA process (still better known by its earlier name of the "D Notice" system).

I recommend Professor Purvis's description of how he helped ffrench-Blake to publish his memoirs. In keeping with the cloak-and-dagger side to ff-B's life, Purvis never names Radio Atlantico del Sur, but refers to it as "a station based in London but aimed at an audience thousands of miles away".

Like others interested in the events of 1982, I am indebted to professional researcher Lee Richards and his excellent PsyWar.Org site for discovering and reproducing a number of key declassified official documents relating to British psychological operations in the Falklands War (including RAdS).

A personal interest

For a radio station that was on the air for just 28 days, more than 35 years ago, Radio Atlantico del Sur (known within the MoD as Project MOONSHINE) has held an enduring interest for me.

This is partly because of a personal, though almost entirely passive, connection with the station. I heard, live, its very first broadcast (and several subsequent ones). Through my work at BBC Monitoring I became aware of a few of the technicalities that got it on the air and the controversies that surrounded it. I even wrote, twice, to the station – but I'm leaving that tale for another time.

My interest was rekindled in 2016 when I read the memoirs, published the previous year, of Neil ffrench-Blake, an experienced broadcaster who had also worked for MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS) before being hired at very short notice to set up and run Radio Atlantico del Sur as its civilian manager.

ffrench-Blake, whose full-of-incident life deserves the attention of a biographer, had a varied career as a published author. His other books included several works on equestrianism and a guide to the golf courses of South East Asia. [1]

ffrench-Blake's memoirs

ff-B's name had been linked with RAdS on specialist websites for years, but his memoirs were the first appearance – and an officially sanctioned one – in the public domain of an authoritative behind-the-scenes account of the station's operations.

As the title of his book, "The Pol Pot Conspiracy", indicates, it focused on ff-B's post-1982 adventures in Asia, during which he ran a much longer-running radio station, Voice of the Khmer.

In Neil's own words to a well-wisher many years later, Voice of the Khmer was a US-backed station "which we used successfully to drive the Vietnamese out of Cambodia". [2]

But before detailing his activities in Asia, ff-B devoted a substantial part (30 Kindle pages) of his memoirs to his recruitment by the Ministry of Defence to run Radio Atlantico del Sur, his work to launch the station in a very short space of time and his reflections and assessments of that experience.

Recent documents

Other recent publications have also keep my interest alive.

In particular, there was the release to the National Archives in June 2017 by the MoD of a further batch of documents (reference DEFE 24/2254) relating to psychological operations in the Falklands War.

These documents received particular attention in the Spanish-language media, including a lengthy BBC Mundo article, Islands of the Damned! 

Setting the record straight

There are a number of points about Radio Atlantico del Sur that I'm keen to cover in this series of blog posts.

Some of this work is a setting-the-record-straight exercise, for RAdS's critics have had 35 years to denigrate the station while ffrench-Blake and others who knew the facts felt that they were duty-bound to maintain an official silence.

These will be personal posts, reflecting only my views – and certainly not those of the BBC which (at least in public) strongly opposed the station’s very existence.

The BBC was not alone in its attitude. Some within the British government were also critical. As I'll explain in a later post, this included at least one figure close to Margaret Thatcher, although she herself gave the go-ahead for Project MOONSHINE.

What the critics say

The criticisms have been of both RAdS's aims and methods:
  • Aims: it was (so its critics say) a mistaken attempt to air crude, and therefore ineffective, pro-British political propaganda 
  • Methods: it was (they add) amateurish and inept in its techniques
The criticisms of RAdS's aims were based in part on a misunderstanding of RAdS's objectives.

It's important to stress that these aims were limited, entirely military and purely tactical.

Specifically, the station sought – once UK forces had landed on the Falklands – to persuade Argentine troops to:
1. "hesitate before firing on British troops"
2. "consider positively the benefits of surrendering"
And that's all. [3]

These objectives are set out in a now-declassified MoD document written around a week before Radio Atlantico del Sur went on the air. ffrench-Blake said that he wrote this document, and quoted from it in his memoirs. (The memoirs add a third objective to those listed above: "to discourage enemy troops from mistreating the civilian population".)

Update on 31 October 2017: I'm happy to report that I've been able to confirm ffrench-Blake's authorship of this document, known as the "Interim Assessment". There are at least two versions of the Interim Assessment in the MoD and FCO files. One of them – marked as a Draft for discussion – is described as being by the "Project Manager", surely a reference to ffrench-Blake. An introductory note explains: "It assesses subjectively his current thinking about the potential of the operation as a whole, with particular reference to programming opportunities and objectives." This draft version is dated 10 May and is in MoD file DEFE 25/502. Its wording differs very slightly from a later version found in FCO file 26/2449 (which is the version on psywar.org).

But the station’s critics saw it as having wider – political and "propaganda" – aims. 

BBC criticisms

The BBC’s objections were ostensibly based on fears that RAdS would damage the corporation’s own Spanish-language broadcasts.

I'm interested in two particular criticisms of RAdS, made by the BBC and others:
  • that its presenters did not speak with Argentinean accents or idioms
  • that it deprived the BBC of a valuable transmitter for its own broadcasts to Latin America
I want to examine the evidence for and against these claims.

Future posts

This post has been an introduction to this personal project. My next posts on this blog will include a summary of some of the uncontested facts about Radio Atlantico del Sur, a timeline of its activity and a look in depth at some of the points made by RAdS's critics.

Further ahead, I'll look at various topics including:
  • Some of the technicalities of its operations, from its "secret" studio in London to its requisitioned transmitter on Ascension Island 
  • My memories of listening to the station... 
  • ... and what happened when I wrote to them 
  • Radio Atlantico del Sur and BBC Monitoring 
  • ffrench-Blake's thoughts on what might have been done better 
  • And that key question: was it the "wrong sort of Spanish"?
Notes and sources

[1] Neil ffrench-Blake's other books were A Handbook for Adventure (published in 1965), The World of Show Jumping (1967), The World of Dressage (1969), The Pony Club World (1970) and South East Asia Golf Guide (1995). In all but the last, his surname was given without a hyphen. It was still hyphenless when he was Programme Director and Deputy Managing Director of Radio 210 in Reading in the late 1970s.

[2] The quote is in an email from ffrench-Blake to Mark Watkins in 2013 – reproduced by the latter after ff-B's death in 2016. 

[3] There was also a separate set of objectives for the period before British forces landed on the Falklands. The MoD document gives these as: "to establish the credibility of the station", "to build the maximum audience in the target area" and "to increase the sense of isolation felt by the target audience". But as RAdS only began broadcasting little more than 24 hours before the landings, it never got the chance to tackle those objectives in their own right. 

© 2017. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

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