Ministers and the Media: New evidence from the 1980s

The latest batch of British Government files from the 1980s, released to the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south London, last month, include some interesting new evidence for historians on relations between government Ministers and media experts over questions of openness during times of war, and how this should be interpreted.

The latest set of files, now available for public scrutiny, includes PREM 19/1883, a government file from the year 1982, which is entitled ‘House of Commons Defence Committee Falklands Inquiry’. This contains secret information from within the heart of Whitehall about the extent to which officials kept the Prime Minister up-to-date on possible future areas of contention over issues of openness, control and censorship. ‘PREM’ is the category given to the records of the Prime Minister’s Office and, in this case, the PM was – of course – Margaret Thatcher, whose administration had just led Britain to victory in an operation to recapture the Falklands Islands from Argentina in the South Atlantic.

The National ArchivesThe file concerns two academic studies that were commissioned in late 1982 by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) into aspects of relations between government and the media in wartime. The research was commissioned by the MOD following the then very recent Falklands conflict, which had been the country’s most significant war since the Suez invasion of 1956, and had seen some notably tight control of news coverage of the war in Britain by MOD censors.

The academic studies were undertaken for the MOD by Kings College, London, and the Centre for Journalism Studies at University College, Cardiff. The study by Kings College concerned ‘Unofficial commentary in the media on military aspects of the Falklands campaign 1982’. The study commissioned from University College, Cardiff, was on the ‘Relations between Governments, Armed Services and the media in times of armed conflict’.

Although not a large file as such, what PREM 19/1883 does reveal for the historian is some brief but tantalising new evidence on how Ministers have often in the past sought to influence and control the ways in which journalists and academics have researched into, and interpreted, the nature of news in wartime, especially in the aftermath of any armed conflict. Included in the file is some hitherto secret correspondence between the MOD and the Office of Number Ten, Downing Street, in which the MOD explains to the PM and her staff the background context to the two academic studies. The MOD appears to express some frustration with one of the studies, flagging up some of the possible problems it might raise.

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

On the Kings College study, the MOD briefed the PM that: ‘Though short, it is an important piece of work and it is uncontentious’. On the other hand, when it came to the University College, Cardiff, study, the MOD was clearly less happy. The Cardiff study, which ran to 250,000 words in two volumes (one volume was on the British experience in Suez and the Falklands, and the other volume covered Vietnam, Israel’s occupation of the Lebanon, and Grenada), drew heavily in its first volume on interviews with those directly involved in the Falklands campaign, including serving and past Ministers, and various civil servants and military personnel.

As the MOD’s letter put it: ‘Some of the comments and conclusions of the study are contentious’. Moreover, according to the MOD, ‘difficulties’ had arisen with the authors of the Cardiff study, who had ‘been reluctant to delete from their report certain items of information which, though classified, they do not consider to be of real security sensitivity’. In addition, the MOD pointed out to the PM that one of the authors of the Cardiff study had leaked to The Observer newspaper the existence of an ‘understanding’ between the Government and the BBC. Although this was, in the MOD’s view, a prima facie breach of the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act, ‘the Law Officers decided in the event that no legal action should be taken’.

As a number of her biographers have noted, Margaret Thatcher was never really that much of a fan of ‘academics’, and one can imagine that what she read here probably reinforced her prejudices. All in all, though, the newly-released file offers a fascinating glimpse into some of the tensions that could occur between the State and academia.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University. His Level 6 module Britain, America and the World in the 20th Century, includes a case study of the 1982 Falklands War.

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This entry was posted in Archives, British history, Media history, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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