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Falklands fallout: how to manage media in wartime

''Well, what do you want - bayonets or pencils?''

That question, barked down a Ministry of Defense telephone at the height of frantic preparations to put together the task force for the Falklands war, set the tone for a parallel battle: one between defense officials and the British press.

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Far more than a private internecine fracas, the dispute affected the way the British people learned about the progress of the war during the 74 days it took to fight. It led to mutual recriminations, attacks on the news media by the prime minister, and to a formal inquiry about to be launched by the all-party Defense Committee in the House of Commons.

Lessons have had to be learned on all sides.

The barked question is widely attributed here to the first Sea Lord, crusty Sir Henry Leach, as he was rushing to assemble a huge war machine in 48 hours.

Britain had been caught unawares and unprepared when Argentina invaded the Falklands April 2. Sir Henry, highly suspicious of the press in general, is said to have allowed only six places for a television crew, a radio reporter, and four national daily correspondents.

He did so only after being asked by the ministry's public information office. ''Left to himself, he would not have had any of us on board his ships,'' one British defense correspondent said.

At lower Navy levels, however, the war has taught the need for more awareness of the public mood.

The places were decided by an official of the national newspapers proprietors association who put names in a hat and drew out six. Those not chosen rose up in wrath, insisting more spaces be granted, or at the very least, that all material be ''pooled'' - that is, made available to all media.

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When the din reached the prime minister herself, Margaret Thatcher quickly realized the need to keep public opinion on her own side in the first war Britain had ever fought in the mass electronic and information age.

She ordered her own press chief, Bernard Ingham, to see to it. Late April 3, one day after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, six more places were granted.

What happened from then on showed Britain's understandable inexperience with fighting a shooting war 8,000 miles from home.

''You have to understand,'' one senior British journalist said, ''people like to answer questions in America, and in Washington everyone is aware of the power of the press and plays to it. In Britain, secrecy is the order of the day. People, much less officials, don't enjoy being asked questions by strangers, by and large. Our whole system is different. Information is more tightly held. We have much less separation of powers between executive and legislative.''

Intensifying military secrecy was the experience of the Vietnam war. ''A substantial number of our military'' one official says, ''think the Americans lost Vietnam because of television coverage and they were determined Britain was not going to lose the Falklands for the same reason.''

The 74 days of war showed that some British newsmen fared much better than others: some because of the glamor of television, some because of their experience, and some because they dealt with the Army on board the troop ship Canberra rather than the Navy.

''Yes, there are lessons for us all to learn,'' a senior government official said in an interview. ''How to handle newsmen 8,000 miles from home for a long period, how to include the press from the start, and how to regulate news material better at both ends - at the front and here in London.''

He paused. ''Then again,'' he asked, ''when will we ever have a war quite like this one again - so far from home, undeclared, so that the formal rules of a declared war didn't apply and our forces lacking a land base for most of the time from which to transmit pictures and news stories?''

The main complaint of British Broadcasting Corporation television was the way the task force was assembled in the first place. Assistant director-general Alan Protheroe said, ''I think the biggest lesson that should be learned - and it is absolutely fundamental - is that as you plan an expedition like this, you plan into it facilities for the media.''

David Fairhall, veteran defense correspondent of the Guardian newspaper, sees other lessons for the military. In an interview he said: ''The military has learned the need to brief reporters unattributably, rather than relying on the central, civilian bureaucracy which runs the public information office.

''At first the civilian office did all the talking, through spokesman Ian McDonald. Not being military men, and frightened of breaking security, it gave only bare bones. Later the military men got into the act, but it took them time.''

Propelling the British military into a less secretive relationship with the press is its growing need to influence public opinion and the House of Commons in coming budget battles.

The Navy, alarmed at the way its surface fleet has been cut in recent years, has begun campaigning to reverse cuts which were to have been announced before the war began.

Fleet commander-in-chief, Adm. Sir John Fieldhouse, has already given a postwar press conference in which he argued strongly to keep the carrier HMS Invincible, which had been sold to Australia (but not delivered) before the fighting, and to retain the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid as well.

On the other hand, Army and Air Force commanders, who stand to benefit from extra spending if naval surface forces are slashed, are maneuvering to make sure the cuts are made. A battle for the public ear has begun.

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