Monday, 20 November 2017

"The War Cabinet is invited to agree"

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.

Acknowledgement: I continue to be happy to express my gratitude to professional researcher Lee Richards for making available a number of declassified files from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Cabinet Office relating to British information and psychological operations in the Falklands War, including MOONSHINE, the codename for Radio Atlantico del Sur. Material from these files forms the basis for this blog post.

Whitehall wrangling

Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2 April 1982. Within four weeks the Ministry of Defence's Special Projects Group (SPG) had conceived the idea of Radio Atlantico del Sur, developed a comprehensive plan to get it on the air, chosen its premises and identified some members of a team to run it.

An outline of the SPG's plan – known as "Annex A to SPG 020" – was circulated within government on 28 April. A covering note from the officer in charge of the SPG, Colonel S., struck an upbeat and confident tone:
Annex A is circulated for your comment or agreement by 1000 hrs 29 April. SPG believes that once full agreement is given, installation of GPO lines will be the only limiting factor in putting the proposed radio station on the air.
But it wouldn't be that easy.

Just two days later Colonel S. was writing a gloomier memo. He noted that the head of the BBC's External Services, Douglas Muggeridge, "has persuaded FCO to oppose the proposal" – even though this contradicted an earlier and much more helpful response to the MoD from the BBC's Assistant Director-General, Alan Protheroe. [1]

FCO opposition

The dispute between the MoD and the FCO went on for more than a fortnight. 

The Special Projects Group sought to answer specific FCO objections to Radio Atlantico del Sur in its "SPG Paper No 6", issued on 3 May. This said the BBC would be "adequately distanced" from RAdS in order to protect the corporation's credibility, and gave assurances that RAdS would be a "fully professional" operation that could attract an audience to its "topical and entertaining service". Overall, the SPG said, RAdS would be "a comparatively low-cost operation carrying negligible risk to the BBC, which could, in view of the Argentine temperament, and the predicament of the garrison, contribute to the success of HMG policy".

But the FCO remained unconvinced. Lord Belstead, a junior Foreign Office minister, was "most apprehensive" and suggested using delaying tactics with the MoD in the hope that the Falklands crisis would come to a peaceful end before there was a chance to put RAdS on the air. He hoped "that we would be able to procrastinate". 

"It would help if we could buy time into next week," the noble lord suggested.

An exchange of letters on 6 May between the top civil servants in the MoD and the FCOSir Frank Cooper and Sir Antony Acland respectively, also failed to resolve the matter.


The FCO engaged in lobbying. Sir Antony Acland had lunch with Douglas Muggeridge, the BBC's hater-in-chief when it came to RAdS, on 6 May (the same day that Sir Antony replied to Sir Frank, and Lord Belstead advocated procrastination).

Unhelpfully for the FCO, Muggeridge's boss, BBC Director-General Sir Ian Trethowan, had no objection to the project, as long as the BBC was distanced from it. 

The FCO sought the support of other government departments in its efforts to scupper the MoD's plans. This included the Radio Regulatory Department (RRD) of the Home Office. The RRD were worried by a BBC suggestion that RAdS transmit on a shortwave frequency outside a band allocated to international broadcasting. At that time, the BBC itself regularly used such "out-of band" channels (e.g. 9410, 12095 and 15070 kHz).

But the RRD said the particular frequency the BBC had suggested might interfere with a Brazilian aeronautical network. Such an objection was music to the FCO's ears.

The RRD proposed instead that RAdS simply take over an "in-band" frequency used by Argentina, and offered two possible such channels. This, the RRD said, would "resolve the situation satisfactorily".

But the FCO did not like that idea either. [2]

Bernard Ingham's letter

As the to-ing and fro-ing continued across Whitehall an unexpected intervention came from Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's press secretary. Radio Atlantico del Sur had a purely military objective and so lay well outside the remit of Ingham's job. But on 10 May – with the arguments between the MoD and the FCO still unresolved – he wrote a letter, with wide circulation, denouncing Project MOONSHINE in strong terms. (I discussed Ingham's letter, and other opposition to MOONSHINE, in my blog post The Wrong Sort of Spanish?)

Ingham's letter has gained notoriety among RAdS watchers, but while it was colourful, its impact should not be exaggerated. Many of the letter's recipients may not have taken it seriously. The day after Ingham wrote it, a senior MoD civil servant, summarising in a memo how the arguments over MOONSHINE had gone back and forth within government, described the letter as "emotive" and "ill-informed". In the copy of the memo that has survived in the files, one of its recipients has added a handwritten note:
Who is this smug fellow Ingham? I could write in similar vein about some of his ventures. (Not that I am pro-MOONSHINE.)
It was clear that the dispute would only be ended by taking the matter to the War Cabinet – known formally as the Overseas and Defence Committee, South Atlantic or OD(SA) – for a final decision.

What the War Cabinet saw

A draft text of the document seeking OD(SA)'s approval is given below. There are several versions of this paper in the declassified MoD and FCO files. I have transcribed this text from what I believe to be the latest available version in MoD file DEFE 25/502. This version was attached to a covering letter dated 12 May from the MoD to the Cabinet Office.

The following day, Keith MacInnes of the FCO Information Department suggested four amendments to the draft. These played on difficulties (real or imagined) with the project and were no doubt intended to persuade the War Cabinet to veto MOONSHINE. It is not known whether any of MacInnes's suggested amendments were incorporated in the final version of the paper presented to OD(SA).

Update on 30 September 2018: I've now seen the final version of the proposal put to OD(SA), dated 13 May 1982. See my post The Foreign Office's last stand.

[Explanations that I have inserted into the text below are in italics and between square brackets.]




This project envisages the use of a BBC transmitter on Ascension Island to broadcast to the Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands and, to a lesser extent, on their mainland coastal bases. The aim will be military and designed to maximise the use of radio to demoralise Argentine troops (particularly conscripted troops) currently occupying the Falklands, reinforcing its sense of isolation, and so reducing the willingness of the Argentine garrison to resist any landing.

Programmes would mainly consist of popular music likely to appeal to Argentine conscripts - many of whom have short-wave radios interspersed with news items carefully selected from the world's media. No lies would be told. Presenters, experienced in radio and fluent in the Spanish spoken in Argentina, would adopt a relaxed and informal approach. Programmes would be put together in London. A note about possible approaches is at Annex A. [Annex A is the document "Programming - Interim Assessment" written by Neil ffrench-Blake and discussed in my post Setting the Record Straight. The text of this "Interim Assessment" can be read on the website.]

The BBC are unwilling to provide this sort of programme within their current broadcasts to Latin America which are directed at a higher level audience. If, therefore, programmes aimed at an audience of Argentine conscripts are to be broadcast, HMG will need to make the programmes and use the only suitable transmitter, which is one of the BBC's on Ascension Island. This would not cause the loss of any BBC programme, but it would limit the options open to the BBC in circumventing Argentine jamming of its current broadcasts and it would cause some loss in the quality of reception. To minimise the effects on the BBC's Latin American and West African services (both broadcast from Ascension Island), it would only broadcast between 0530 and 0730 and 2000 and 2300. The evening broadcast is the more important because less of the audience is then likely to be involved in their military duties. [The times given were Falkland local times three hours behind GMT and four hours behind British Summer Time. The proposed time and duration for the morning broadcasts were subject to considerable discussion and revision, and when they eventually began on 28 May they were at 0530-0630 local time.]

One suitable frequency, allocated to the UK but currently unused, is available. If Argentine jamming needed to be countered, further frequencies might need to be "poached" from other countries.

Costs, including staff costs, are estimated at £15K per week, assuming 5 hours broadcasting [per day].

The service would have to operate openly: to attempt to do otherwise would quickly be spotted (eg by electronic location of the transmitter).

One obvious concern is that we should not undermine the high reputation of the BBC world-wide. The Director-General has said that they would understand if the Government decided to set up such a service. Their primary concern would be to be "sanitised" from it publicly (eg by their transmitter being requisitioned rather than volunteered, and there being no visible links to BBC External Services). This should be entirely feasible.

There would no doubt be allegations of "black propaganda" in some quarters but it would become apparent from the nature of the broadcasts that this was not true. A good deal of criticism would in any case be avoided by taking an open approach to the project in public from the outset.

The potential gains from a radio station of this kind weakening Argentine resistance to a landing of the Falkland Islands and saving lives are important. No other programmes being broadcast to Latin America have this aim. On balance, the criticism we might face is justified by the potential saving of lives (on both sides).

OD(SA) is invited to agree that Radio Atlantico del Sur should proceed as outlined above. Broadcasts can start within 2 days.


OD(SA) gave its approval to Project MOONSHINE on 18 May and Radio Atlantico del Sur began broadcasting the following day.


[1] What is now known as the BBC World Service (operating in English and many other languages) was in 1982 still referred to as the BBC External Services – and in internal BBC bureaucracy as External Broadcasting (XB). At that time, the "World Service" name was reserved solely for the service in English. This distinction was abandoned in 1988 when the "External Services" name was dropped and all international broadcasting by the BBC came under the World Service brand.

[2] In the end, Radio Atlantico del Sur used 9710 kHz for its evening broadcast and 9700 kHz for the morning one, "in-band" channels in the 31-metre shortwave band. Both were close to 9690 kHz, which was used during the 1982 war by various stations in Argentina.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment