Saturday, 2 September 2017

"The wrong sort of Spanish?"

This post was amended on 22 October 2017 to update the information in footnote 1 about the date of Bernard Ingham's letter, following the release of the letter by the National Archives.

Further updated on 19 November 2017 to note that the location of Radio Atlantico del Sur's studios has now been publicly identified.

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.

About this blog post: This is the third of several posts on Radio Atlantico del Sur, the Spanish-language shortwave station operated by the British Ministry of Defence in the final four weeks of the April-June 1982 Falklands War.

The case against Radio Atlantico del Sur (Project MOONSHINE)

Even before it went on the air, Radio Atlantico del Sur had powerful enemies (in Britain that is, never mind Argentina). Those who opposed the setting up of RAdS used a number of arguments  some of them based on ignorance of its limited and purely military objectives. (See my separate post for a discussion of these objectives.)

Strong opposition came from a surprising quarter: Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's combative press secretary. Ingham  a familiar face on TV to anyone who lived in the UK in the 1980s  sometimes appeared more Thatcherite than his boss, but on the issue of Radio Atlantico del Sur he found himself taking a contrary position to hers. 

Ingham cultivated the persona of a blunt-speaking Yorkshireman whose job was to knock common sense into the fanciful heads of London journalists. This public image also extended to Ingham's behind-the-scenes work. 

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (Volume 2) quotes him as describing the proposed station as an exercise in "downmarket dirty propaganda tricks". 

"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," Ingham added, alluding to the project's codename. [1]

Similarly, Radio Atlantico del Sur's civilian manager Neil ffrench-Blake recalled a "handwritten scrawl" by Ingham on an official letter: "Let us have no more of this MOONSHINE." (This, and other quotes from ffrench-Blake in this post, are from his memoirsThe Pol Pot Conspiracy, published in 2015.)

In short, Ingham seemed to think that RAdS would be targeting a broad group of Spanish-speaking listeners in Argentina, perhaps in Latin America as a whole. In fact, its sole intended audience was Argentine troops in the Falklands.

The BBC's position

The BBC  to be more accurate, some of its senior figures  put forward several public objections in principle to the very existence of RAdS.

But opinion at the top of the corporation was divided. The Official History says that "the BBC was prepared to offer help and advice so long as it could publicly distance itself [from the broadcasts]".

And ffrench-Blake noted that while the head of the BBC External Services, Douglas Muggeridge, "made a lot of rude noises" in public about RAdS, "behind the scenes the Beeb could not have been more cooperative".

ffrench-Blake also said that "fortunately" Alan Protheroe, the BBC's assistant director-general (i.e. a more senior figure than Muggeridge), was an officer in the Territorial Army.

The British press certainly heard a strong line of opposition from the BBC, though Muggeridge's initial public statements were not so much "rude noises" as disdainful. 

"I believe... that people will realise that an operation of this kind is a very different matter to the type of international broadcasting done by the BBC," The Guardian (22 May 1982) quoted him as saying at the time of RAdS's launch.

RAdS's staff would have agreed with Muggeridge on that. They were indeed engaged in a "very different" business to that of the BBC.

Once the broadcasts became established, the BBC widened its criticisms from those about policy and principle to attacks on the style of Radio Atlantico del Sur's output.

"Extremely chatty, commercial radio style, bordering on vulgar" and "surpassing sometimes the limits of good taste" are BBC assessments of the time quoted in the Official History.

Such descriptions were intended to be wounding, though to me they make the broadcasts sound exactly the type of thing that would appeal to young Argentine conscripts.

ffrench-Blake put it well: "RAdS was not aimed at middle-aged civil servants. So it was no wonder that they did not understand it." I would only add that it was also not aimed at middle-aged BBC mandarins.

The "wrong sort of Spanish"

Some of the points made by RAdS's critics can be put down to Whitehall turf wars (ffrench-Blake said the "vehement opposition" to the project came "mainly from the Foreign Office"), hurt feelings among rival bureaucrats (he also said the MOD press office was unhappy), noses out of joint at the BBC, genuine misunderstandings of the station's purpose or knee-jerk reactions to a supposed "propaganda" operation.

But two very specific attacks on the station are sufficiently serious to deserve investigation.

The first is that the presenters on Radio Atlantico del Sur did not speak with Argentinean accents or idioms. 

This is a regularly repeated criticism of RAdS, and one acknowledged by ffrench-Blake. In his memoirs, he addressed the various claims that, as he put it, Radio Atlantico del Sur's presenters "spoke the wrong sort of Spanish".

Let's look at those claims, and his response.

Chilean, Colombian or Central American?

In his 1984 book Clandestine Confidential, author Gerry Dexter put the accusation bluntly: "Spanish language experts noted that none of the announcers had Argentine accents but were closer to what was called 'Cambridge-Chilean'."

Dexter also noted reports that the station aired "out-of-date Argentine pop music... of a type which might have more appeal to the parents of Argentine troops than the troops themselves".

His overall judgment of RAdS was that it was "a rather inept effort".

Some of Dexter's other statements on the station are demonstrably inaccurate, including small details about times and dates.   

More seriously, Dexter said that RAdS was "run by the RAF". This is incorrect, though at least two RAF technicians were seconded to assist on the engineering side of the project and other RAF personnel may have been recruited to help in other aspects. [2]

Andy Sennitt, a writer and broadcaster on international radio matters, has been consistently hostile to RAdS. Writing many years after the Falklands War, he described it as "a clumsy attempt at psychological operations (‘psyops’) presented by two civil servants, which amused the Argentinians and embarrassed the BBC".

In fact, there were up to nine presenters, all but one of whom were members of the British armed forces. (See my post MOONSHINE – A story of psychological warfare.)

In the same article, Sennitt asserted that the station originated "from a studio in the basement of the Foreign Office". This seems highly unlikely, not least because of the FCO's known hostility to RAdS

ffrench-Blake's memoirs don't reveal the exact location of the studio, beyond confirming that it was in central London.

Updated on 19 November 2017: Recently released MoD and FCO files confirm that RAdS broadcast from the studios of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) in Kings Buildings, Smith Square, Westminister. See my post The Secret is Revealed: Radio Atlantico del Sur's studio.

On a separate occasion, writing in 2001, Sennitt had a different version of Dexter's claim about "Cambridge-Chilean" accents.

Sennitt repeated the claim that there were just two presenters and said: "The two speakers, a male and female, were FO employees who had learned Spanish from a Colombian and thus spoke with pronounced Colombian accents."

Sennitt was wrong on two other points in that 2001 piece, including a statement that RAdS was "created by the Foreign Office". As noted above, the FCO opposed the setting up of the station. [3]

Sennitt also claimed that the "amateurish operation by civil servants... broadcast on [a] well-known BBC frequency".

Again, this is untrue. Neither of RAdS's frequencies (9700 and 9710 kHz) are listed as used by the BBC in the 1980, 1981, 1982 or 1983 editions of the annual World Radio TV Handbook (whose Assistant Editor at the time was none other than Sennitt himself). 

And The Guardian report of 22 May 1982, already cited above, said: "It is very fortunate, in their [the BBC's] view, that it [RAdS] is on a frequency that has never been used by the BBC."

A further variant of the story about the accents on RAdS surfaced in August 2017. This time, according to an article in the Madrid newspaper El Pais, the supposed accents were neither Chilean nor Colombian but Central American!

ffrench-Blake's response

"Not only did our broadcasters speak fluent Argentinean argot, but we even had a South American Spanish expert sitting in the whole time to check and check again," he wrote in his memoirs.

He added that a number of members of RAdS's staff had family members living in Argentina. 

And he recounted how members of his staff "who spoke perfectly fluent Argentinian Spanish" would successfully call telephone numbers inside Argentina to gather information from local residents.

Future posts

We'll need to get to the bottom of the "wrong sort of Spanish" question at some point, but I'll leave that for another time.

I'll be tackling in a separate post the other serious criticism of Radio Atlantico del Sur: that it deprived the BBC of a valuable transmitter for its own broadcasts to Latin America.

Other topics I'll look at in future posts include:
  • 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
  • BBC Monitoring and Radio Atlantico del Sur
  • ffrench-Blake's thoughts on what might have been done better
  • And that key question: was it the "wrong sort of Spanish"?

And I guess that, in the interest of completeness, I should also write a post on "Liberty" (a.k.a. "Argentine Annie"), sometimes described – though not by me – as the Argentine equivalent of Radio Atlantico del Sur


[1] The Official History says these words were written on 10 April 1982, "when Ingham suspected the project to be dead". That would have been a very early date indeed for him to have thought that. By then the MoD's Special Projects Group (SPG) had only just begun work, and wouldn't formally submit a case to set up Radio Atlantico del Sur, under the codeword MOONSHINE, until more than a fortnight later (28 April). 

I wonder if Ingham's memo was written on 10 May (rather than 10 April), by which date the proposal had still not been put to the War Cabinet and so he could have reasonably assumed that it wasn't going ahead.

Update on 22 October 2017: I've now seen a copy of Ingham's letter, in MoD file DEFE 25/502 released by the National Archives in September 2017, and it is indeed dated 10 May 1982.

[2] Dexter said the unit in question was the RAF's "Operations, Electronic Warfare and Radio Division". Perhaps a military buff could tell us whether such a unit ever existed?

[3] If further evidence of Foreign Office hostility were needed, ffrench-Blake said the FCO withheld cooperation from him, including refusing to provide him with copies of Argentine newspapers. Instead, he had to use a private courier service from South America.

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


  1. Hi, I found your blog by chance. I find it very interesting. A few days ago I am listening to liberty and rads material. About the point of this post I give you my humble opinion as an Argentine. I apologize for expressing it in Spanish but my English is very elementary and what I am going to write is beyond the scope of the google translation.

    Estuve escuchando la emisión del 20 de mayo de 1982 en youtube y la voz femenina que presentaba la sigla lo hacia correctamente. El presentador del comienzo, si bien hablaba un correcto español su pronunciación claramente no es nativa y suena muy esforzada. Como ejemplo te marco la palabra mayo que en español rioplatense la letra Y suena como la sh en ingles, no maio. las e y las l muy largas. y para mi gusto particular la adictiva y extraña forma de decir la letra u muy aguda en "Radio américa del Sur".
    Su compañero al principio tiene claramente un acento centroamericano, quizás no en lo que dice sino en como lo dice. Noté también por momentos una Z muy fuerte al estilo ibérico.
    Por otro lado el periodista a cargo de la sección de noticias ofrece un español mucho mas fluido al igual que "mariana flores" de la sección "sentimental break" a mi entender la única con un español sudamericano creible.
    En cuanto a la música en ingles muy acertadas elecciones para un publico joven tal el objetivo que tenían.
    Aunque en la música en español no tenían mucha información ni estaban tan actualizados. El tango en los 70 y 80s era visto por la juventud argentina como la música de sus padres y abuelos y lo despreciaban. Recién 15 o 20 años después el tango seria re-descubierto por la juventud, y así fue que ya en este siglo se salvó de desaparecer.
    Para peor la dictadura argentina tenia una visión cultural arcaica, ejercían una censura activa, absolutamente arbitraria que dependía del capricho del oficial a cargo y para colmo tenían un formalismo exagerado que literalmente te podía matar del aburrimiento.
    En las islas se edito un periódico para las tropas, que lejos de ser inspirador como Stars & Stripes lo fue para los norteamericanos, resulto a decir de las tropas: un potente somnífero.
    Es bastante posible que los soldados escucharan la emisora pero la espantosa "planificación" de la junta hizo que las unidades no tuvieran suficientes baterías ni siquiera para sus propios transmisores militares. Pocos soldados lograron llevar radios a escondidas y es difícil saber cuantos de esos receptores captaban las ondas cortas.
    As conclusion is very curious the war effort of rads, his voice was loud, clear and understandable but his accent except for "Mariana Flores" failed almost completely.

    Pd.: I would like you to write a longer post of "annie" especially as how the transmission arrived to the united kingdom, on its accent and pronunciation, its content, etc.

    best regards


    1. Muchas gracias Mauricio por tus comentarios muy interesantes! Voy a responder con más detalle en una fecha posterior. Mientras tanto, por favor vea mi post separado sobre Mariana Flores: