Patrick Watts at volunteer point. (Photo by Rafael Wollmann)

Small town radio

Letters from the Falklands front: when broadcasting was a matter of life or death

Artillery Row

To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep? 

“It is easy to say things about Stanley when you have never been there.” Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America

Dear “English conDom”,

Walking to work the other morning, I was brought up short by the above, seemingly hand-crafted epigraph, thrown up by that day’s listening matter. Sure, Brautigan was talking about some place in Idaho and not the South Atlantic, but listeners to the Falklands Radio Breakfast Show (which I now have the honour to present) will know that I am partial to coincidences. More on the radio forthwith; suffice to say meanwhile that I find it hard enough to say things about Stanley and I’ve been living here for 15 months now.

In rival media news, there’s been (as warned) a glut of Falklands War material on BFBS of late. I watched all three consecutive hours of it last Monday (war nearly going wrong repeatedly, from the Brit perspective; two grim “eye-witness” soldier documentaries; and a fascinating piece on British propaganda radio). Then on Thursday I tuned into Ben Fogle’s The Forgotten Battle, about the ungenerous misremembering of the Royal Marines’ valiant efforts to fend off Argentinian invasion.

Mr Fogle had secured a perfunctory interview with Patrick Watts MBE, one of a significant number of Islanders with fair claim to the tag of “local hero”.

Patrick had the misfortune to be on air the night of 1/2 April 1982

I’ve met Patrick a couple of times in the pub, and he’s always struck me as a very genial fellow. He still does the occasional VIP spot for Falklands Radio, not least the Boxing Day horse racing, a major highlight of the national social calendar. If memory serves, he might even do a little tour-guiding too (when there are tourists), which would be a bit like booking an open-top London bus trip and finding that your host for the day was going to be John Simpson. I don’t know when he finally retired from mainstream radio activity, but I gather he’s not normally around the Islands at this time of year. My understanding is that he may not find it terribly comfortable, and doesn’t want to become the go-to talking head for the whole ‘82 experience.

Still — there he was, talking to Ben Fogle. The reason for this is that Patrick had the misfortune to be on air the night of 1/2 April 1982, in his role as Broadcasting Officer of the then-Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station (yes, “FIBS”: as Graham Bound, founding editor of the loyal opposition Penguin News has pointed out, an unworsenable name for even a part-time journalistic outfit).

What happened next is nicely encapsulated by a quick rewatch of the more-or-less-documentary 1992 BBC drama An Ungentlemanly Act (which I have done for you, dear reader), starring Ian Richardson, Bob Peck, various British up-and-comers like Marc Warren and Adam Godley, and a raft of locals (including the aunt of the friend who lent me the DVD, and an ex-Marine I met at last year’s Armed Forces’ Day lunch at Government House), as well as the crew of some yacht, playing the Argentine marines, and rather extraordinarily, Major Mike Norman himself in a cameo as “FIDF Stalwart”.

The film opens with as efficient a snapshot of the Islands in the ‘80s as I have seen. To wit: farmer on horse, peat-cutting, the Upland Goose Hotel (no more, alas), Stanley golf club, the FIDF (anachronistically) parading at the Battle Day memorial in full rig, and likely types joking about being on the magistrate-mandated blacklist at the town’s numerous hostelries. Then there’s an Argentinian submarine in the harbour… which may just be something of a narrative convenience (I’m not a naval man).

The first substantial speaking role is, fittingly, Mike Grady playing Patrick Watts. The South Georgia “scrap-metal workers” situation is still rumbling on, he tells his listeners. There’s aggro re the resident Argentinian (military) airport management. A bit of scuttlebutt about the availability of (tinned) fruit at the West Store. And now some squeezebox music…

As the ill-fated evening wears on, the crucial role of the radio station is illustrated, not just in preserving a record of the events, but in playing a focal role in them. FIBS in those days had a rather lighter broadcast schedule (news only twice a week, etc.), and in any case “broadcast” isn’t quite the word, since for the occupants of Stanley the radio was brought straight to the speakers in their homes via an “antiquated cable system”. But as soon as the Governor issues the call-out to the local forces, Patrick announces that FIBS will stay on air throughout, then sticks on “Strangers in the Night”.

While the Governor is invoking the Emergency Powers Act 1939, the FIBS guys calmly play Mantovani, “Yesterday”, “Close to You” and a bit of Don Williams. In between songs, they relay Government House messages to the populace, and take calls from around the town, updating everyone on the situation as the main Argentinian landing force approaches from the East. Ultimately, the station will end up broadcasting the Governor’s willingness to discuss a ceasefire. “Patrick”, it must be said, remains significantly calmer than his American colleague (this may or may not be fair), and I note at one point does glance semi-quizzically at the desk calendar bearing the inauspicious date of 1 April.

Eventually, the crucial moment comes for Patrick and/or the station generally, as armed Argentinians kick in the studio door. With considerable fortitude he tells them, “I’m not doing anything with a gun in my back!”

Patrick’s final words (in this dramatised version, at least) are that “there are some who are unhappy with the way I’ve presented…” This caught me by surprise on second viewing — and now I wonder what on earth folk were expecting? (The Governor himself praised Patrick for his efforts; and apparently at least one person phoned in from Camp to congratulate the FIBS team on their invasion coverage.)

As the Royal Marines lay down their arms at Government House, and are led away, we hear the Argentinian national anthem being played over the airwaves.

In the words of Graham Bound’s Invasion 1982: the Falkland Islanders’ Story (foreword by Frederick Forsyth, no less), “FIBS was the only way of communicating with the newest Argentine citizens. And it was the best way of controlling them.”

Watts didn’t want to be part of propagating fiction

Patrick Watts had a decision to make, and immediately made it clear to the listeners that, whatever happened, he didn’t want to be part of propagating the fiction that life was simply continuing as normal. But Rex Hunt had urged him to stay on, “for the good of the Islands”, and Patrick had his kids to think of too. So, wrestling with his emotions, he said, “I must obey the orders of the people who have taken over the station… [But] let’s make it quite clear that it is no longer the station that you knew, run on the same lines as previously. They are answering my phone calls and telling me what I must do… Whether the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station will ever return to the situation it once knew, I don’t know, but I sincerely hope it does…”

There then followed a string of deeply unconvincing communiques from the new governing authorities.

I can’t tell you what Patrick thinks of the now-rebranded Falkland Islands Radio Service. But we still play plenty of records from the early 80s (and indeed a good 30 or 40 years before that). We continue to include the “sheep chill factor” in the weather forecasts. We loyally channel a lot of the BBC World Service (through the night and for some parts of the weekend). And I’m fairly sure we remain one of the world’s very few national media outlets to broadcast live darts.

Similarly, this time last year (mid-June, specifically), I — being new to both the station and indeed the Islands — had been watching (as always) The West Wing, and needed several long songs to get me out of the studio and up to HQ for the Victory Day parade. I decided I’d play “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits. First, though, I noticed that the notoriously early-rising Gavin Short (then FIRS news editor) was in the building. Something prompted me to check with him that Islanders would not find “Brothers in Arms” (to risk a discomfiting term) triggering. Not at all, was his view: he thought the listeners would love it.

Imagine my surprise when I then quickly Googled the song to make sure it wasn’t known for its pro-Communist sympathies, or hadn’t been co-opted by the New IRA — only to find that it was not only written about and in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War, but was released on my birthday. (How’s that for a coincidence? Two, actually!)

This strength of feeling cuts both ways, of course — and the other side of the commemorative coin, perhaps (or at least the sharp edge of it), was discovered by a former presenting colleague who told me he’d once played ABBA’s “Hasta Mañana”, and got abrupt complaints that he was playing songs in Spanish. I merely note that a significant percentage of the place names in the Islands are, of course, in Spanish. Not to mention those of many of the inhabitants. Anyway, people here love ABBA!

Gavin, who couldn’t really hew much closer to the home shores (I suspect he might wear sheepskin underwear), likes to tease me about this sort of thing (while calling me “young sir”, N.B., which is extremely decent of him). I don’t know when I first found out that he had himself been an 18-year-old FIDF member on the night of 1/2 April. But I immediately asked him, joking-not-joking, if there was, well, anything we were supposed to do, should Hypothetical Foreign Forces one day come (again) to kick the radio station’s door down. “Oh, leave it open, ché!” was his unhesitating reply.

A year on, Gavin (paradigm of good sense that he is) has since been re-elected to the Falklands’ Legislative Assembly. Charmingly, he still leaves handwritten memos after his Monday evening show, for me to find when I come in first thing on Tuesday. How many countries can there be where parliamentarians leave notes for the breakfast DJ, let alone ones containing any or all of the words “groovy”, “dude” and “rock and roll”?

Speaking of notes, your letter went down surprisingly well here — in a totally contrary way, of course — if the local message boards are anything to go by. Fifty-four likes, and not a single comment that could be reprinted in a responsible journal. I reckon you can probably guess the gist.

One morning last week I was in the middle of my show when a member of the station’s senior staff came in with the immortal opener “It’s not in any way a problem, but…” Cue urgent lining up of several tracks so I could find out just how big a problem whatever it was would be for me.

Turns out, the day before, a senior citizen had barged into the local national newsroom (uninvited, but also unimpeded) losing his shit, demanding apologies/retractions/restitutive lap-dances and — I kid you not — threatening a lawsuit.

Now, you will have rightly intuited from my despatch about the FIDF commemoration on 1 April that a) this is still a sensitive subject for some Islanders, and b) I was somewhat chary when it came to writing about it (one of the current membership went so far as to call my letter “careful” — not an adjective I’m used to). But that was nothing compared to my concerns about my half-hour local radio feature on the same topic.

The piece went out on Monday, 4 April and I was on edge for the rest of the week, in case I had made fundamental errors about what was, in truth, a life-changing event for several people. The phone rang once… [deep breath]… but it was actually quite complimentary.

So — what was the issue? The issue (if there could be said to be one at all) was the precise wording of an innocuous and in any case obviously light-hearted remark (signposted by audible laughter), narrated in (almost literally) the heat of battle by one of my feature interviewees. A remark which, apparently, I also ought to have fact-checked, despite the fact — ahem — that there weren’t any pertinent facts for me to deal with.

Had this enraged member of the public anything to do with the FIDF, then or now? No. Had he the least grounds for objection, let alone legal recourse, against his unwittingly-“offending” fellow member of the citizenry? Not really. Had he at least listened to the supposedly “defamatory” broadcast before marching into the radio station to rant and rave about it? Erm… unbelievably, he hadn’t, it transpires.

Embarrassing stuff, frankly — though not for me, as I had long since left the building. Still, perhaps you fancy some sort of emergency exchange programme…?

Yours, using the wifi at the travel agent,

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