Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Secrets of Sender 302 – a first look

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.

The key to MOONSHINE

The BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island was the key to Project MOONSHINE the plan by the Ministry of Defence to broadcast to Argentine troops on the Falklands.

Unless the MoD could have the use of one of the four powerful Ascension "senders" (as BBC shortwave transmitters are known) its project would fail before it had even started. [1]

Such a failure would have been very welcome to the Foreign Office (FCO), which opposed MOONSHINE from the start.

Eventually one of the senders was made available – the British government had to formally requisition it from the BBC – and its use is one of the most controversial aspects of the story of Radio Atlantico del Sur.

The MoD made it clear from the start of the planning for MOONSHINE that the sender would only need to be requisitioned for the hours that RAdS would be on the air. It would be free during the rest of the day for its regular service for the BBC.

But that still meant that for the times of RAdS's broadcasts (which in the end amounted to four hours a day) the BBC would have to manage without a quarter of its transmitter strength at Ascension.

Critics of Radio Atlantico del Sur (in 1982 and since) claimed therefore that the MoD's operation deprived the BBC of a valuable transmitter for its own broadcasts to Latin America and Africa at a time when it was particularly important for Britain that these broadcasts were heard.

A criticism worth investigating

Some claims by RAdS's critics can be put down to Whitehall turf wars (such as the objections by the FCO), hurt feelings among rival bureaucrats, noses out of joint at the BBC (though opinion at the top of the corporation was divided), genuine misunderstandings of the station's purpose or knee-jerk reactions to a supposed "propaganda" operation.

But the claim that Radio Atlantico del Sur seriously damaged the BBC External Services' ability to reach its own audiences deserves investigation. [2]

I have therefore been looking at exactly what effect the loss of the transmitter had on the BBC. I've been trying to reconstruct the schedule of each Ascension sender at the key times of day, including that of Sender 302, the specific transmitter that was requisitioned.

In the next post
  • How the BBC coped with the loss of Sender 302...
  • ... including a look at Ascension's operational schedule
  • How the Voice of America (VOA) almost got drawn into the controversy
  • What happened when the FCO ignored the advice of its own legal adviser and refused to sign the requisition order
  • The exchange of letters between the government and the BBC over the requisitioning

[1] The four transmitters, installed in 1966-67, were Marconi BD272 models with 250 kilowatts of output power each. Since the 1982 war, six additional 250-kW transmitters have been installed at the relay station.

[2] 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.

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

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