April 8, 2013 saw the death of Margaret Thatcher aged 87, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990. She was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. The Russians labelled her the ‘Iron Lady’, a title which she was glad to accept. Her legacy remains controversial. Many admire her; many loathe her; few are indifferent.
Impartial international news
An important event during Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership was the Falklands (Malvinas) War of 1982. Because it was an important historical event in its own right (at least for Britain), the handling of the Falklands news became particularly significant in the history of Reuters. Put to the test of reporting a big running story in which the United Kingdom was a principal player, Reuters was finally able to confirm that it was truly a supranational organisation, despite being headquartered in London.
One hundred years earlier, things were very different. While ensuring accuracy, Reuters would have unquestionably reported any war from a British Empire viewpoint. By 1982, in complete contrast, Editor-in-Chief Michael Reupke took it for granted that no correspondent would write in pro-British terms. This view would not have endeared him to Mrs. Thatcher.
When hostilities began on 2nd April 1982 Reuters tried to make it as easy as possible for the Argentinian authorities to allow continued news coverage directly out of Buenos Aires. Reuters staff who held British passports were transferred to Montevideo in neighbouring Uruguay. Non-British staff members were flown in to Buenos Airies as replacements. A full news file was circulated from Montevideo to Latin American subscribers outside Argentina. The file on the war for Argentina itself (in Spanish) was limited to official news from all quarters. It often led with Argentinian material but was always balanced from other sources.
On June 6, 1982 Reupke explained to the Argentinian representative at the United Nations that Reuters was now not a British news agency and that only a relatively small part of its business was conducted within Great Britain.
“Reuters”, he said, “takes no position, national or otherwise, in any situation or conflict, whether in the war between Iran and Iraq, the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, or the present conflict between Argentina and Britain…we have taken care to explain to the world the Argentinian position and the significance of the islands to the Argentinian people. We have in no different manner reported the position of the British Government.”
Reupke went on to add that Reuters correspondents were drawn from 48 different nationalities.” We take pride in the fact since it must help to ensure that no one national or partisan view can prevail in our reporting”.
The Argentinians accepted most of these arguments. However, a Reuters correspondent was never allowed to travel with their forces.
Challenging the Newspaper Publishers Association of Britian
Back in Britain, the Ministry of Defence had delegated to the Newspaper Publishers Association (NPA) the allocation of places for reporters with the task force. But the NPA declined to recognise the claims of Reuters. Consequently, on April 5, Reupke wrote a cleverly persuasive letter to Defence Secretary, John Knott, pointing out that Knott might find the file “from the leading international news organisation damagingly inadequate if Reuters were not allowed to report from the British side, particularly for its subscribers in the United States, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere”. As a result, correspondent Leslie Dowd was allowed at the last minute onto the liner Canberra, then serving as a troopship. It sailed ten days after the first warships.
Although Dowd was subject to military censorship, Reuters continued to challenge the system. Defence Advisory (D) Notices had originated from just before the First World War and constituted a voluntary agreement between British newspaper editors to suppress news when necessary for the sake of national security or interest. However, when the secretary of the ‘DA Notice’ committee, Rear-Admiral William Ash, telephoned Reuters World Service editor Manfred Pagel to complain because the agency had reported the departure of the British fleet from Ascension Island, the answer was short. Ash asked Pagel if he were not concerned about the safety of ‘our’ forces. Pagel replied that this was Ash’s problem; not that of Reuters. “I’m not British”, he added in his strong German accent. Reuters was prepared to hold back stories only if their release might endanger lives, and this applied to lives on both sides. In practice, only one such report was delayed.
Reuters did well with its Falklands coverage. Nonetheless on June 15, its London Bureau had to admit to being comprehensively beaten over the news of the final Argentine surrender. It had fallen seventeen minutes behind America’s UPI.
There was no good reason.
Like the Iron Lady herself, sometimes even Reuters was fallible.
(With thanks to Donald Read, the author of ‘The Power of News – the history of Reuters”, to whom I am indebted for much of this information.)