STATE PAPERS HAVE revealed the Irish Government was concerned that arrangements between RTÉ and BBC during the Falkland Islands conflict – which saw BBC journalists masquerade as RTÉ staff - could lead to a national embarrassment and put a number of correspondents at risk in Argentina.
In the spring of 1982, at least four BBC journalists and three crew men travelled to Buenos Aires on valid and proper Irish passports, including one who was accredited to the Cork Examiner and another two working for the BBC but accredited to RTÉ.
In a move later described by the broadcaster as “a blunder of massive proportions”, a letter was given to BBC journalist Clive Ferguson by “a very senior RTÉ executive”, representing him as RTÉ staff. Senior executives and the Government worried that the move could potentially put the BBC correspondents, as well as the genuine RTE staff, in danger.
According to documents released under the 30-year-rule, RTÉ ensured that a second reporter, Brian Walker, was not given a similar letter but the Irish Ambassador in Argentina told the Government that he appeared “to have their permission to represent himself as working for RTÉ”.
The Ambassador raised his concerns about the arrangement on the 8 June 1982, a couple of months after the conflict broke out between Argentina’s military junta – led by General Leopoldo Galtieri - and Britain – led by Margaret Thatcher – that centred on control of the tiny South Atlantic islands known as the Falklands to the British and Las Malvinas to the Argentines.
The BBC and RTÉ reached a deal whereby RTÉ ‘fronted’ the British broadcaster’s requests for satellite TV transmissions from Buenos Aires. In return, the Irish station had access to the facilities, free of charge. There was apparently a similar agreement reached with Dutch TV.
Assisting an enemy organ?
The Irish Ambassador believed the authorities in Argentina knew what was going on but were prepared to turn a “blind eye” in order to get their point of view aired in Britain. However, he was worried that there could be a change in the “volatile situation” which would see “less liberal elements…suddenly ‘turn nasty’ (if there was a humiliating defeat at Port Stanley for example) and it could be that RTÉ, and consequently, the Irish Government would be in an embarrassing position”.
He said that the State could be accused of “duplicitously lending covert assistance to an enemy organ, thereby breaching Irish ‘neutrality’” – a phrase later repeated by an Assistant Secretary in the Department of the Taoiseach during a meeting with an RTÉ executive.
RTÉ conceded that it had made the error when asked for clarification by officials in the Taoiseach’s office following the 8 June telegram from the Embassy in Buenos Aires.
In the correspondence, the Ambassador had also expressed concern about the potentially dangerous situation that the individual Irish passport holders/journalists had been put in.
Although he said the message was only a precautionary step and he emphasised that there was no reason to believe the correspondents were in any particular danger, he advised:
They might perhaps be formally warned by the Embassy that their involvement in this arrangement could have negative consequences from which the Government would not be able to guarantee their immunity.
Less than two weeks later, one of the BBC crewmen, named in documents as Mr Hutchins, said he had been getting “bad vibes” from the Argentine authorities in relation to the BBC-RTÉ arrangement. The Irish broadcaster also received a message from the Foreign Ministry on the 18 June, advising that although there was “no problem” with satellite facilities for Ireland, it was “fully backed for the World Cup”.
The Ambassador said he did not want to “read too much into it but it may have been a hint as they have not got in touch with us in this way about satellite facilities since RTÉ were genuinely seeking facilities for themselves”.
Notes from a meeting held between an official at the Taoiseach’s office and RTÉ’s News Features Editor Kevin Healy show that an official complaint was not made to the broadcaster by the Irish Government but it wanted to draw ‘informal attention’ to the “self-evidently delicate situation”.
According to the documents, Healy said the decision by a senior executive to give Ferguson a letter was “a blunder of massive proportions” and a number of people had already expressed their dissatisfaction and concern.
Following the meeting, a Mr Moran in the Taoiseach’s office replied to the Ambassador, stating Ireland would be “anxious” not to do anything that might be regarded by the BBC as “unfriendly” given that the nation was the subject of hostile treatment in certain sections of the British media (The Sun newspaper had called for a boycott of all Irish products).
He added: “However, we do agree that in the interests of the journalists themselves, you might informally advise (rather than formally warn) them that the arrangement under which they are working could put them in a dangerous position if attitudes in Argentina towards British journalists turn nasty: and that we might have difficulty in assisting them in these circumstances. In the light of your own considerable experience in dealing with journalists, I will leave it to your discretion as to the manner in which such advice might be given.”
Further information about the situation was transmitted back to Ireland on the 18 June, including concerns that Brian Walkers, one of the correspondents working with the BBC under RTÉ accreditation was “acting with some considerable lack of discretion”.
The Embassy also detailed an attempt by one or a group of the journalists to get an interview with Foreign Minister Costa Mendez for the BBC but under RTÉ ‘cover’.
The Ambassador noted:
There are camera crews of various nationalities going round [sic] town with Irish tourist board stickers, shamrocks, etc. on their equipment. Irish ‘cover’ has become something of a joke among the media here.
The advice given to the Government was to formally (but orally) talk to the journalists involved in the deal.
The Ambassador wrote, “The line between formal and informal in a situation like this is of course fairly thin. If ‘informal’ means having a casual word with each of them when one happens to come across them, this would not really be feasible. What I have in mind would be to contact everyone on the BBC list and any others we are aware of, invite them all to the residence for a friendly cocktail but there clearly utter a form of words which could with justice be referred to afterwards, if necessary, as formal advice.”
See National Archives, References 2012/90/866-875; 2012/59/936; 2012/59/16-17; 2012/59/66-68;2012/59/71-72
1982 State Papers: Haughey Government in row over royal baby message>