It doesn’t take a military genius to know that an enemy acquiring your war plans could be an unmitigated disaster. Journalist Geraldo Rivera got kicked out of the Iraq War in 2003 for giving away troop movements on live television. Gen. George McClellan won the Battle of Antietam in part because he had the Confederate battle plan. There’s just a lot that could go wrong if the enemy has a clue as to what’s about to happen.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would be upset at the idea of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) transmitting the UK’s war plans live on the air. The BBC didn’t have the Royal Navy’s exact plans, but what it learned was close enough for The Iron Lady to accuse them of aiding the enemy.
On April 2, 1982, Argentina under dictator Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands. The Falklands have a long colonial history, but the British have maintained a troops presence on the islands since 1833 and they were made a crown colony in 1840. The government of Argentina has disputed the British presence there ever since.
In 1976, the democratically elected government of Isabel Peron was overthrown in a coup. In its place, the military installed a right-wing junta that suspended Argentina’s Congress, trade unions, and local elected rule. Galtieri rose to lead the repressive junta after years of economic crises. When Galtieri’s popularity in the country began to flounder, he ordered the Argentine military to take the Falklands by force. The operation was over in a single day.
Despite appearances, the invasion did not catch the British entirely by surprise. British intelligence knew about the invasion before it launched but the British government could not launch an adequate countermeasure in time. Once the invasion was on, however, Thatcher quickly mobilized a task force to sail for the islands.
The BBC is a new service funded by the British government, but the broadcaster, in spite of who was footing its bills, decided to remain neutral in the conflict, reporting on it as if British forces were not from their country. The BBC issued a directive to its services: “We are not Britain. We are the BBC.” As a result, they would avoid referring to British troops and ships as “our” troops, leading Thatcher to recall that language as a “chilling use of the third person.”
A year after the conflict ended, Thatcher would write a 17,000-word remembrance of the Falklands War, recalling her displeasure with the way the BBC reported on it. When the Queen Elizabeth II, a luxury cruise ship converted to a troop transport, began to take soldiers to other ships. The BBC reported its operation and whereabouts. Thatcher was enraged.
“They were sometimes reporting as if they were neutral between Britain and Argentina. At other times we felt strongly that they were assisting the enemy by open discussions with experts on the next likely steps in the campaign… My concern was always the safety of our forces. Theirs was news.”
With the islands occupied, and Argentina refusing to abide by a UN resolution to leave, the British task force of 127 ships was hastily assembled. On April 21, Special Air Service commandos were landed to retake the South Georgia islands as both sides’ naval and air forces battled it out over the Atlantic Ocean. Paratroopers and regular infantry landed on May 27, 1982. By June 1982, the British had retaken the islands after some considerable effort. The BBC reported on it all, and its reports seemed to have little effect on the outcome.
The win boosted Thatcher’s party’s popularity at home, while the dictatorship of Leopoldo Galtieri, quickly collapsed and he was forced to step down, eventually finding himself in an Argentine prison. Argentina still lays claim to the islands, but is unlikely to mount an armed invasion again.