By Graham Bound (Stanley, FI) – Days were short during the occupation of 1982, and everything in Stanley seemed hostile and frightening. Our situation was hardly any safer when the watery winter sun went down and the Argentine-imposed curfew forced us indoors. But within whichever substantial building one chose to shelter, with windows blacked out and peat stoves glowing, there was comfort and at least the perception of safety.
In the case of my family, that “safe” building was the wonderful old Upland Goose Hotel, owned then by our much-loved friends the Kings. On any evening of curfew, we would share the food that we were starting to eke-out, and then gather around the short-wave radio to absorb something equally nurturing: reliable information.
In the alcove off the Goose kitchen, a hush would descend as someone who actually understood how to use the complex communications receiver, carefully tuned it to 11.75 or 9.915 megahertz. The demented racket of teleprinters and the static whistles and pops that quite possibly emanated from the other side of the universe would die away, to be replaced by the booming signature tunes of the BBC World Service. We would sit up straight and think, “All’s well! Our friends are still there, just as they said they would be.”
“Lillibulero” prefaced the news. “Oranges and Lemons” told us that it was time for our very own “Calling the Falklands”. And “Radio Newsreel’s” arrival was heralded by the pounding and authoritative “Imperial Echoes”. The very music beat seven bells out of Argentine propaganda. “Listen up out there,” it said sonorously. “Our people have got the truth for you.”
And so they did. Those reporters were our friends, telling us to the best of their ability what dreadful things were going on around the Falklands and in London, Buenos Aires and Washington, where our future was being decided. Our friend on the air waves kept us going and never failed to be there when we needed them.
And that is how most of us came to know of Harold Briley, the BBC’s South America correspondent, who was based in and reporting fearlessly from the enemy camp, Buenos Aires.
Harold (whom I have come to know very well since 1982) was one of a BBC trinity; Brian Hanrahan (who “counted them all out and counted them all back”). Robert Fox, who memorably reported from the mud and the gore of Goose Green, were the others. Hanrahan (who died far too young) and Fox (who continues to report on defence issues today) published books after the war. But Harold just carried on with his day job.
Finally, though, 40 years on and at the age of 91 he has published his memoir of the conflict, its genesis and its aftermath, giving fascinating insights from a unique viewpoint in Argentina.
The main story in that country before April 1982 was what appeared to be the disintegration of an economy (a 100 million peso bank note had been introduced) and the brutal suppression of dissent by a far-right junta. The Buenos Aires of those days would have been no place for a timid young journalist, but fortunately Harold was a veteran foreign reporter, and a tenacious and brave one too. He received death threats and he was stalked by the government kidnap squads, who had proven time and time again that they were more than capable of carrying out their threats.
I suspect that Harold’s disarming charm gave him a veneer of protection; that and his British passport. The cover of his book shows him on an aircraft carrier flight deck after the war. Besuited in a voluminous naval survival suit, he grins and his eyes glint from the folds of orange plastic. I’m not sure that Harold’s twinkle would keep him safe from the thugs who patrolled Buenos Aires in unmarked Ford Falcons, but in any situation less serious than that, it would certainly help.
It has been worth waiting 40 years for this book. The transcripts of Harold’s World Service reports still convey urgency and drama. He was in a unique position to observe and analyse, and he seemed to have a special respect for Falkland Islanders, whom he first met when he visited the islands some 18 months before the invasion. This comes over in his reports.
On 25 February 1982, when talks between London and Buenos Aires seemed to be deadlocked, Harold sounded the alarm. He broadcast a story covering “speculation that Argentina’s generals may resort to force to get their way.” He said: “A Foreign Ministry spokesman told me Argentina’s patience is running out and the Galtieri government wants quick results.” He completed his report with words that reflected his concern for us: “The Islanders don’t want to be part of Argentina. They insist they are British and want to stay that way.”
Harold’s journalism is objective, but he understood Islanders and wanted to make sure their voices were heard. That is principally why he is loved and respected in the Falklands, even today.
I find his insight into British diplomacy and intelligence utterly fascinating. “The warning signs were so obvious, I could not understand why the British Government did not react,” he writes. But, as he came to understand, British diplomats were not firmly committed to defending the security of the UK’s real estate in the South Atlantic. Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary in 1982, told Harold he had been “misled” by the then British ambassador to Buenos Aires Anthony Williams. That is a remarkable statement.
Incredibly, Harold received a phone call from the press officer at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, asking if he could explain British policy vis-à-vis Argentina and the Falklands to her. Harold said regretfully that it was a mystery to him too.
Even more disturbing is the author’s account of the top-secret negotiations that went on between the junior Foreign Office minister Nicholas Ridley and a senior Argentine Air Force officer Carlos Cavandoli. Harold credits these revelations to author and academic Lawrence Freedman, but they are retold here concisely and well.
Ridley and Cavandoli met in complete secrecy in Switzerland and developed not only a close friendship, but also a plan for sovereignty “leaseback”, which would eventually be presented to and forcefully rejected by islanders. It was always assumed that this was simply a British plan, but we now know that it was part of a complex plan devised jointly by Buenos Aires and London. It was, Harold quotes Lord Carrington as saying, “furtive.”
The book tells the story of the Islanders during the war, and this is of course a subject close to my heart. His admiration for Falkland Islanders come out very clearly. I suspect he sees us as the only national grouping in the long history of the dispute which retains its honour totally intact.
Harold Briley’s story reveals so much, and time has not blunted its bite. Read it, enjoy it and, especially if you were not around in 1982, learn from it. The events he describes and explains still shape Argentina, the Falklands, and Britain’s relationship with both, today.
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