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Farewell to historic BBC Falklands programme: Dismay among UK supporters

Friday, February 24th 2006 - 21:00 UTC
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The news that the BBC World Service is axing its dedicated and historic “Calling the Falklands” programme has caused dismay and anger among some Falklands supporters in the United Kingdom who believe it is an ill-timed error of judgment by the BBC and the Foreign Office, who finance the programme.

These supporters are campaigning for continuation of the programme with backing from Members of Parliament, who have demonstrated strong support for the Islanders in their determined resistance to intensified Argentine economic and diplomatic aggression in that country's unrelenting campaign to secure sovereignty over the 2,400 islanders. Argentina continues to hamper tourism to the Islands by restricting air services, objects to Falklands offshore oil prospecting and recently seized a Falklands fishing boat falsely accusing it of fishing in Argentine waters. Such actions breach the spirit of the 1999 Anglo-Argentine agreement on co-operation.

The Conservative Party Secretary of the All-Party Falklands Group in Parliament, Andrew Rosindell, is requesting the BBC Director General to explain the decision to the MPs. Rosindell, who has visited the Falkland Islands, says: "For the tiny amount of money saved, the decision will be interpreted in Buenos Aires as a sign that the British Government does not believe it is important to maintain links with the Falklands".

The Governor evicted by the Argentines in the invasion, Sir Rex Hunt, also supports retention of the programme. Throughout the conflict he broadcast many times on "Calling the Falklands" to the captive Islanders. He pays handsome tribute to the BBC in his book "My Falkland Days". He speaks with unrivalled authority and first-hand experience. He was listening to World Service reports of the unfolding drama on the day of the invasion, sheltering under a table in Government House, pistol in hand, to help defend it, as Argentine special forces surrounded and attacked the building.

Changes could save programme

Islanders complain they learned of the decision to ditch the programme only after secret talks involving the Falklands Government, without public consultation. A strong critic is the programme's long-term presenter, Falkland Islander Graham Bound, who asserts that the programme could be saved and updated at comparatively little cost. He advocates a review of the programme, which was never done, combined with real consultation with the Islanders. "This", he says, "could devise a new-look programme, with more suitable scheduling, perhaps abandoning its current form altogether, to amalgamate with the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service news as a series of London-produced packages. It would still have the Falklands media's means of approaching issues in the wider world through the BBC's unrivalled network".

His words carry more weight than most as he is an expert on the Falklands media, as a journalist who witnessed the 1982 invasion, listened like most Islanders to the programme day in and day, founded the Falklands only newspaper, the Penguin News, and wrote an acclaimed book on the courageous part Islanders played in their own liberation. He has been a Falklands Government press officer and is now a respected senior Ministry of Defence information officer, having served in Iraq where he again witnessed the value of BBC World Service news.

Abolishing the two 15-minute programmes a week will save comparatively little money in the BBC's huge budget. The alternative package of training and programmes offered by the BBC for re-broadcast for the Islands media is welcome as far as it goes but seems to offer little more than was available previously.

Argentine Dimension Ignored

Defending the cut, a BBC spokesman described "Calling the Falklands" as a "bit of an anachronism. The Islanders have their own broadband, television and radio. We would prefer to help them build up their own media". It is true the programme is no longer the vital link it once was, and Islanders now enjoy listening to UK programmes such as "the Archers" and watch "Eastenders" Astonishingly the official announcement to scrap "Calling the Falklands" makes no mention of Argentina. Officials are instead quoted as saying it is "time to move on" in this multi-media age, dangerously ignoring the crucial fact that the Argentines have not moved on and may mistakenly take it as another signal that United Kingdom determination on the Falklands is weakening. BBC World Service is as greatly admired in the Falkland Islands as in other parts of the world.

The Falklands programme, one of the longest running of all BBC services, was instituted in 1944. Its abolition ? one year short of the 25th anniversary of the 1982 Argentine invasion -- may have serious political implications which the official press notice disingenuously ignores. It is likely to evoke strong emotions among older Falkland Islanders for whom the programme was a vital lifeline and unique source of news which boosted morale during the dangerous and uncertain days of the Argentine invasion, when they were unaware what fate awaited them.

Praise for Invasion coverage

Many of them wrote to the BBC expressing their gratitude, summed up by the most senior Falklands government official in the islands during the occupation, Harold Rowlands, later chosen to bestow the "Freedom of the Falkland Islands" upon the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One of his first acts after liberation was to send a telegram to the BBC saying: "Throughout the period of the Falklands crisis, there was continuous praise here for BBC services. The BBC was the only reliable news media we had to inform us what was taking place in the islands and the South Atlantic" His telegram specifically thanked "Calling the Falklands" as well as other BBC producers and correspondents for what he called "magnificent coverage".

Many others echoed his praise. Government Ministers, many Falkland Islanders and even the Queen used the programme as a unique conduit to send messages to the besieged Islanders. British Prime Ministers have ever since broadcast a New Year message of re-assurance to them, pledging continuing support and military defence. . Even the Argentines recognised the importance of BBC broadcasts by ordering confiscation radios which the Islanders hid under floorboards and listened with the aid of aerials poked out of windows on broomsticks, risking punishment by the Argentines, who spent vast sums attempting unsuccessfully to jam reception in the Islands while themselves listening to the BBC's English and Spanish language services to find out what was happening.

Argentina's most senior military spokesman, after briefing hundreds of journalists in Buenos Aires on Argentina's often misleading version of events, always afterwards asked the BBC Latin America Correspondent whether he could then listen to the latest BBC news on his radio to inform him of the truth. A British Government alternative programme of propaganda called "Radio Atlantico del Sur" proved a professional flop and gained virtually no listeners among the Argentine occupation force.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman's recent Official History of the Falklands Campaign confirms how valuable the BBC was in maintaining Islander morale. It also reveals for the first time the full extent of Foreign Office duplicity in its secret negotiations with Argentina to hand over sovereignty of the Islands and the encouragement the Argentines derived from such announcements as the proposed scrapping of the Royal Navy's South Atlantic patrol vessel HMS Endurance, which had to be abruptly reversed.

Middle East Priority

Cynics may regard the decision as cost-cutting ? along with the abolition of several East European language services -- to divert money elsewhere such as the planned BBC Arabic television service to start next year in a belated attempt to reverse the setback of its Arabic TV service begun and abruptly halted a few years ago at a crucial time in Middle East politics. That misjudgement enabled the Qatar-based al-Jazeera to fill the gap and build up far-reaching influence and support throughout the Arab world just when Britain most required its influence to be felt in the circumstances surrounding the invasion of Iraq.

Despite the Iraq War and its disastrous aftermath causing widespread hostility towards the United States and United Kingdom, the BBC's reputation for truth and integrity in sixty years of radio broadcasting retains an Arabic audience of 12 million a week and many millions more using its on-line service "bbcarabic.com", which is being enhanced with video ahead of the television service.

The need rightly to prioritise the Middle East should not be an excuse to withdraw influence from other important parts of the world such as Latin America with its huge population and growing political and economic significance which the Falkland Islands may share in future as some experts believe it may have large oil deposits offshore, whose exploitation could become viable as oil costs rise.

Past Neglect and BBC Latin America Initiatives

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has long had a blind spot on broadcasting to Latin America even before the BBC's services began in the 1930s, lagging lamentably behind the first German broadcasts by Hitler's propaganda machine which targeted Latin America. Now Argentina's campaign claiming the Islands is similarly pursued with vigour, gaining wide support throughout Latin America, in the Organisation of American States (OAS), and in annual United Nations debates, so far ineffectually countered by British diplomacy and media activity. Recent Argentine Governments have pledged to wage that campaign only by diplomatic, not military, means. Future governments may be more belligerent despite deterrence by Britain's strong air force, army and naval defences, and big post-war military base and airport at Mount Pleasant.

In the years before the 1982 invasion the BBC deployed only one Latin America staff correspondent covering 25 mostly military-governed countries and eight-million square miles. Though it has been broadcasting in Spanish to Latin America since the 1930s, the BBC still does not transmit a television service in Spanish, unlike its competitors such as the United States CNN, which commands a huge audience. The BBC's 24-hour television news in English is easily available throughout Latin America but that is no substitute for Spanish and Portuguese language television for a population of more than 300-million people most of them, apart from Brazil, dependent on one of the widest spoken languages in the world. This is a strange anomaly for the world's most respected international radio broadcaster for the past 70 years, now reaching a global audience of nearly 150-million.

To be fair to the BBC World Service it is struggling within strict budget limits to keep pace with a fast changing media world and intense competition. In a radical review, it is planning increased investments in new media which its Director, Nigel Chapman, says "will strengthen inter-activity and develop video news reports on our websites, particularly in markets including South America, Russia, South Asia and the Middle East".

The BBC concedes there is global interest in Latin American political and economic news. It has launched a global interactive radio and online breakfast news and current affairs programme for Spanish speakers around the world called BBC Mundo Hoy. The BBC Spanish for Latin America Service has a multi-media deal with a Mexican media organisation to supply initially BBC Mundo radio programmes. It also has an innovative agreement with one of Brazil's most important television networks, TV Bandeirantes , to provide pre-recorded video material sent by internet.

Harold Briley ? London (BBC Latin America Correspondent 1979-1983)

Categories: Falkland Islands.

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